On my recent Taiwan trip with my family, one of my uncles tagged along for much of the tour. I really like this uncle as he is often quite interesting to talk to, and is an extremely smart guy. He’s been retired for a while from his last job as the COE of a major electronics manufacturer, and now sits on the boards of several companies. To say he’s smart is a but lame actually. Chances are that the touchscreen you use on your phone or tablet were created by him – literally he is the patent holder. So as usual when I see him, I’d try to engage him in any number of conversations from Taiwanese politics, the economy, history, the future of personal devices, etc. Ultimately it occurred to me that these conversations seemed to be extremely short lived. The extension of the conversations were quite long however, but always seemed to end up being about LCD touch panel displays. At some point, I finally realized that it was all he either wanted to talk about, or could talk about.
Imagine this: you ask me a question about benefit plan strategy, and all I can talk about is benefit enrollment technology. (I do have my CEBS by the way, even though I never talk benefits). Or if what you really want to know is best practices around transforming HR business partners into internal management consultants and I give you the pitch about how manager self service will free up time for you to work on that project. It’s all good and sort of related, but really it’s not. The problem is larger than random bloggers who have a one track mind though. It’s not even a problem with HR technologists who do tend to be a bit “focused.”
I’ve spent years doing strategy projects from comp, HRIT, and service delivery organizations and they pretty much all have one guiding principle in common: the need to bring better value to the business. We’re excellent at thinking about it, but we’re not so good at implementing it. When we go to the business leaders we’ve promised ourselves to serve and communicate with better, inevitably, we fall back to the same conversations, “Here’s how we are restructuring HR to provide better service to you, our customer.” It’s as if we think they care about our Talent Management project, or that we will be implementing new job codes. These are just headache projects to them that mean more work they will need to bear in the short term. At the end of the day, we’re trying to have the right conversations, but we’re are approaching them in the wrong way. The end result is we just talk about the stuff we know, instead of the stuff they care about.
Here are some tips:
- Approach every leader conversation not as an update, but as a change management conversation. If you do this, you are less likely to talk about the details and dynamics of the project, and much more likely to talk about why the project is important for the business and how the decisions you will be making right now will positively impact the leader. You’ll also be better positioned to ask the leader to make decisions if they understand the context of how it fits into her business.
- Bring your guiding principles and strategy documents to every meeting. Unless you meet with the leader every week, it won’t get redundant to spend 3 minutes at the start of each meeting revalidating the strategy and guiding principles. It might be the best time you spend, drilling your leader with your core outcomes. Without it, you risk a disconnect at the end of the project. With it, you have a leader who will actively sponsor you if she continues to stay on board, and you’ll know this if you stay in front of it.
- End every meeting by making your leader agree that they get it and you are on track. If they don’t get it or think you are off track, make them verbalize this and why they think so. Most leaders who verbally tell you good news consistently and repeatedly either believe it to be true, or will convince themselves out of sheer repetition over time. (that’s not cynical, it’s psychology)
- Leave the project plan in at your desk. Leaders only care about budget and timeframes if you’re totally off track and there is business impact. Otherwise, just bring up the decisions that will be made in the context of pros and cons.
It’s totally human nature to talk about what we know best, and that is what we do every day. But we risk sounding like a broken record that nobody was interested in in the first place. What business leaders want to hear about is not our stuff in HR, it’s their stuff. So long as we can figure out how to talk about their stuff, we’ll be in good shape. I’m not so sure most of us are in good shape right now.