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Executive Engagement

Our CEO and top human resources leader recently separated from the organization – about three months after the release of our most recent survey results. What is the best strategy to get the new CEO and HR leader engaged in developing an organizational response? Please note action planning is now occurring at the department level.

— Adrift without an Anchor, HR manager, government, Minneapolis

September 4, 2013
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Dear Adrift:

There are two basic approaches I would use. The first is more general, while the second is handy in the type of “bottom-up” action planning you are doing now.

Normally, I engage people by presenting simple summaries with top and bottom items, themes of open ends, a plain data report by item, and path or norm analyses – but not my conclusions or solutions. In each session, people have to draw their own conclusions and make their own plans. That increases the likelihood that people will create and implement action plans. This approach works for just about everyone, from janitor to CEO.

When people avoid key issues, as a consultant I ask questions until they eventually do confront them. After all, I can be the most insightful, intelligent consultant on the planet, but they have no emotional attachment to my conclusions and proposed solutions.

Some managers, especially CEOs, attack the numbers or methods rather than taking the effort to come up with actions. You can tactfully point out that while some managers attack the numbers or survey methods rather than deal with difficult issues head on, it’s important to deal with what is in front of them. You can mention that some issues that are strong enough to be undeniable regardless of methods, and provide an example — something that is obvious from even a quick scan, and carries some importance, is usually a good example.

Often, managers get defensive when they feel they have been attacked. This is one case where you can recast the problem as one of perception - it’s not that they are indecisive or don’t listen, but rather that others perceive them that way. This is big, because it removes any personal issues and enables you to cite examples the manager can take to address the perception. Often, actions taken to fix perception also fix reality, especially if you are able to provide a reality check.

Engage the new CEO and HR manager using the same data-driven approach. The CEO’s presentation usually has to be brief, but usually there are easy conclusions to be drawn. I have not yet seen a CEO or HR manager who can see survey data without thinking of some solutions. In short, giving them the data usually engages them on its own.

There is a second way to engage your CEO and HR manager, because the departments, in your case, have already started action planning. By now you should have a number of examples of what people at the department level need from the CEO and HR manager.

In a bottom-up process like yours (whether it was designed that way or not), you have most likely already come up with a set of actions for the CEO and HR manager to take. When action planning starts at the department level, instead of with the leaders, departments can report their needs upwards. These needs can include more freedom of action, changes to the IT or HR systems, process changes, and so on.

Now, you can provide the CEO and HR manager with a list of requested actions, sorted by ease of implementation and effectiveness. That requires much less time and thought than setting the survey-response strategy for an entire organization.

There is another benefit to starting feedback and action planning at the department level. If the executives and leaders start the process, their priorities cascade down; departments tend to follow leaders’ priorities. In this case, each department has set its own priorities independently, which may be more effective for them. That doesn’t stop the CEO from choosing an organization-wide path; it just adds another change effort, which will probably start after the departments’ actions.

SOURCE: David Zatz and Katherine Houghton Zatz, Toolpack Consulting, Teaneck, New Jersey, August 26, 2013

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 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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