John Shamley isn’t the only HR manager who’s had a program rejected after putting a lot of time into designing it and presenting it to the CEO. As frustrating as this kind of rejection is, it isn’t the end of the world—although it sometimes can make you wonder if you’re in the wrong business.
Shamley, however, who is VP of HR for Kentwood, Michigan-based Keeler Brass Automotive, doesn’t get many rejections these days. His years of experience have taught him what it takes to win the boss over to his side. If he doesn’t get everything he wants, he takes it in stride. “I really think that it’s a normal part of doing business. If you want to do things that are new and innovative—things that you think will affect profitability in a positive way in the long term but may have a cost factor that will affect short-term profit—there can be difficulties,” he says.
Learning to develop and present programs for approval is one of the most important development goals for rising HR professionals. The job of training them for the task often falls to the person who’s in charge of running the function for the organization, often the VP of HR.
Ed Dunn, corporate VP of HR for Benton Harbor, Michigan-based Whirl-pool Corp., for example, often finds himself coaching less-experienced HR professionals so that they can present their proposals to the top executive. He says that people are almost paranoid about having to sell HR issues. “It speaks to the state of our profession,” he says. For years HR has been trying to gain credibility with upper management. Now upper management acknowledges the importance of managing the work force, and it wants HR to provide programs. Dunn compares this situation to the scene in Jaws in which a man on the bow of a boat looks down at the shark and says,”We need a bigger boat.” “HR needs a bigger boat,” Dunn says.
Once you’ve built the bigger boat, many factors can influence your ability to get your program approved. Is the timing right? Does the benefit outweigh the costs? Will the culture of the organization allow it? Does it solve business problems?
Help the CEO sleep at night.
Hal Johnson, managing director of New York City-based Norman Broadbent International, a large executive-search firm, learned the importance of these issues during the 25 years that he spent in HR, which included serving as senior VP of HR for The Travelers Corp. in Hartford, Connecticut and Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati. “I learned that if what I wanted to do was something that solved a business problem, it would sell itself,” he says, adding that he never knew a business manager who didn’t want help. “Too many HR people don’t understand the things that keep their clients awake at night,” he says. It’s nice to talk in soft terms—to get intellectual buy-in—but if a program doesn’t improve the business and solve the CEO’s problems, you won’t be able to sell it, according to Johnson.
Sometimes CEOs reject good human resources programs simply because the timing isn’t right, according to Gene Harris, manager of HR development for Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel, a group of USX Corp. He gives as an example, CITE, U.S. Steel’s pollution-prevention training program, which received Personnel Journal’s 1991 Optimas Award for Vision. The company’s HR staff had proposed the program 10 years ago, but it fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until 1988 that increased regulation, conditions in the atmosphere and community awareness of the problem gave the organization enough incentive to move ahead with the program.
Another example was a smoke-free-environment policy, according to Greg Spencer, U.S. Steel’s general manager of HR. “The first time we made the presentation, we were turned back. The president said that we would be infringing on the rights of workers by telling them that they couldn’t smoke in the workplace. We went back and did some research on secondhand smoke and its effects. We looked at what other companies in the city were doing,” he explains. When the results of research into the effects of secondhand smoke were released a few months ago, the timing suddenly was right. Human resources was ready with the documentation, and when the new policy was presented again, it won approval.
Costs can sink programs.
“Everyone is cost-sensitive today. Companies go out of business all the time. That’s what makes expensive programs difficult to sell,” Shamley points out. “CEOs are cautious about making a mistake,” says the VP of HR for Keeler Brass Automotive.
Harris agrees. “It would be difficult to sell a program that had a large price tag, with the business economy having potholes in it,” U.S. Steel’s manager of human resources development says.
Chuck Haggerty is president and COO of Western Digital Corp. in Irvine, California. He began his 28-year career with IBM with a short assignment in human resources before moving on to other positions and has worked closely with HR at IBM and Western Digital. He explains this concern from the point of view of the CEO: “Shareholders will look at the benefit cost the company is expending at the expense of the shareholders. If the benefits are twice as good as the benefits of other companies, the shareholders will become more active in challenging them. In most organizations—especially in the U.S.—the cost of personnel and benefits is the biggest factor to deal with,” he explains.
“Most programs will cost money or will take up the time of employees, however, so you can assume that everything’s going to be difficult to sell,” adds Tom Potts, an independent management consultant in Houston.
Change is hard to sell.
Another roadblock that potential programs face is resistance to change—from management, labor and sometimes the CEO. People in management may understand how the program works and may agree in theory, but the fear that they would be giving up control makes them reluctant to endorse it. In this case, the HR role is to create trust, according to Shamley. “We have to create trust in the work force. Otherwise, anytime you make a change, the employees will think that you’re trying to take advantage of them,” he points out. This is also true for CEOs. “When they leave the comfort zone, they see the program as upsetting things—but there’s no doubt that things are going to change. The only issue is what the change is going to be,” Shamley says. It’s incumbent on HR to determine what the change is going to be and ensure that it’s going to have a positive effect on the organization.
Programs that have a large impact across the entire organization are especially difficult to sell. “I think that’s because our approach has been to try to sell it to the entire organization all at once. Sometimes it’s easier if you start with a smaller piece of the organization,” Harris says.
Many programs aren’t appropriate for the entire organization anymore. “The individual businesses within the company need a different structure, so you won’t have as many across-the-board, same-for-everyone programs,” Haggerty says.
Take culture into account.
How the organization deals with change depends, at least in part, on the culture of the company. “Any person who’s trying to implement a program must know what the culture is. If you’re trying to do things across the culture—or against it—you’re going to fail,” Shamley says.
If the culture is open, and the work force is used to a lot of discussion and consensus building, the approach needed is different from the approach needed in a closed, autocratic organization in which decisions are made from the top down. “You don’t have to implement the program in an autocratic manner, but from a decision standpoint, you have to deal with the autocratic culture,” Shamley says. This means aiming your approach primarily at the decision maker.
Ask yourself where the power is in your organization, Johnson recommends. What underlying fundamental problems or folklore exist in the culture that have to be overcome for the CEO to accept a program and for human resources to be able to implement it?
Understanding your company’s culture helps you know how it makes decisions. “Know what the key meetings are that go on and when they occur,” Spencer says. This way you can try to time your proposals so that you can take advantage of those meetings.
“How does management function?” Potts asks. “Do the members of management rely on committees for decisions or are they relegated to a lower level? What’s the role of the board of directors?”
It will take a lot more effort to unearth this information if you haven’t worked for your present organization for long. Johnson, who has helped many CEOs recruit HR managers in his capacity as an executive-search consultant, says that the toughest part of learning a new job is understanding how things get done. “It can be a lot different from what shows up on the organizational chart,” he says.
If the real decision maker isn’t the CEO, you’ll need to turn your attention to the decision maker as well. “In some organizations, there’s a number-two person on whom the CEO relies heavily. The best strategy may be to work through that person,” Potts advises.
Regardless of whether the CEO or someone else makes the decisions, any program runs the risk of rejection. Sometimes this occurs simply because senior management just doesn’t want to do it. “It may be the right thing,” Shamley says, “but if they don’t want to do it, you aren’t going to be able to do it.”
Company culture is reflected in the role of HR in the organization. Some HR departments are still inhabited by mere paper pushers and number crunchers. They sit waiting, like a Venus’s-flytrap, for a problem to land on their sensitive trigger hairs. When it does, they react, swallowing the problem and digesting it—without the aid of even a rudimentary nervous system—and then return to waiting. Other HR professionals sit in on strategic planning sessions with the CEO. These HR functions are always one step ahead of the rest of the organization, analyzing, predicting and designing programs for problems that haven’t begun to germinate, like frogs sitting on lily pads, watchful eyes searching for problems on the horizon. Problems that are identified as being credible are snatched out of mid air before they have a chance to light. Where the culture allows it, the frog approach is preferable.
The culture isn’t the only factor that determines the ability of HR to be proactive, however. In addition to your understanding of the culture, there are three other factors that influence your chances of success:
- Your relationship with the CEO
- Your credibility as a business leader
- The way you present the program.
Build a relationship with the CEO.
Before you can build a relationship with the CEO, you must know who he or she is. What are the CEO’s likes and dislikes? What’s the CEO’s hidden agenda, his or her background? Study the CEO the way you would study an HR problem. Gather data. Do research. Observe.
Presidents and CEOs are likely to have some characteristics in common. Stephen G. Harrison, president of Lee Hecht Harrison in New York City, recommends being aware that the CEO is a strategist and a visionary. People who have risen to the company’s top position must have those characteristics. They may view the world a little differently simply because they’re CEOs.
The CEO lives in a position of high risk. “HR people don’t get many opportunities to play Bet Your Job,” Johnson points out. The job of a CEO is on the line with almost every decision he or she makes. This has a tremendous impact on motivation. Keep that in mind when you develop and present programs.
“CEOs aren’t any smarter; they’re just good at what they do,” Dunn says. Living with risk means that the CEO is more likely to be a big-picture person, according to Whirlpool’s corporate VP of HR.
John DeMaria, president of Keeler Brass Automotive, agrees that this is valid. He says that the HR professional must be able to separate issues and put them into perspective for management. This requires the ability to see the big picture and not just a piece of the problem.
It also means being able to take people issues and present them in quantifiable business terms. “HR is a squirrely, soft, touchy-feely thing. It’s as much intuitive as it is scientific. Human resources is the most complex resource that management has to deal with. It’s difficult to quantify the softer issues of attitude, empowerment and fairness, but you at least should try to quantify them in terms of what they may mean to the bottom line,” DeMaria says.
One important aspect of the CEO is his or her background. Take a look at what it is and figure out the implications for the design and presentation of your program. “If you know the CEO has an engineering background, you’ll want to include a flow chart, a Gantt chart, a cost summary and other things he or she commonly works with and understands,” says Spencer.
A CEO’s background in finance may call for generous use of numbers. If his or her background is in sales and marketing, a smooth and convincing presentation may work well, but consider carefully your use of any sales tricks you might have learned. The CEO probably will be on to you, and may be either impressed that you can use them or will be more resistant. (It’s up to you to figure out which.)
Dunn cautions against making blanket generalizations, however. “People who fail often do so because they think that one size fits all,” he says.
“Under the pressure of things, you may not be observing how this particular CEO wants to make decisions. You should analyze that. It comes with experience, but don’t wait or allow it to evolve in your mind. Observe and think about it consciously,” Potts recommends. “For example, your style may be very direct, and you want an answer—a yes or no—as soon as you serve it up, but if that particular executive doesn’t make quick decisions, he may put it into the bottom drawer,” he points out.
It’s imperative, therefore, that you learn how the boss thinks. “If you fail to do that, you won’t even get to first base,” Shamley says. Some of this involves being a good listener. Find out which key topics this CEO will listen to, no matter what, and build your proposals around them.
It isn’t easy—it takes some thought—but it can be done. Shamley reinforces this idea using a quote from General George S. Patton in the film Patton. After he had overcome the forces of German Field Marshal Rommel, Patton explains to Rommel how he had been able to win: “I read your book,” he says. “Every CEO has a book—and it’s there to read,” Shamley maintains. Few people write it down, but it’s there to read if you’re observant. “All people have things that are key, things they want to do. Recognizing what they are is key to getting recommendations approved,” he says.
Know the CEO’s weaknesses, because you can use them, according to Shamley. “Always use strength against weakness. For instance, my strengths as a presenter or in implementing programs can help me if the CEO is weak in those things. Let’s say that my strengths are in the areas of getting people to trust me, communicating and so on, and the CEO doesn’t have the temperament for some of those activities, but he or she does other things well,” Shamley says. The CEO may be very happy to enlist these strengths to better the position of the organization.
You need to understand the work style of the CEO as well, according to Harrison. Is the CEO an action or a bottom-line person? Is the boss excited about the ripple effects and not just the splashes? Does he or she want concise, one-page support? In what kind of environment does he or she listen best—in the office or in a restaurant? “It behooves the HR professional to moderate his or her style to blend with the work style of the boss,” Harrison explains.
Find out what the CEO’s strategies are, and link and synchronize HR strategies with them, Harrison recommends. “If you don’t know what the CEO’s strategies are, bootleg your way,” he says.
What if your top executive is new? “If you have a significant employee problem to put forward, and you can’t take the time to get to know the person, then it’s even more important to deal with facts or with suppositions that you can base on some line of analysis. Gradually, the CEO will come to value the input of HR,” Potts says.
DeMaria explains the CEO’s point of view. “When you’re developing the relationship and your confidence in each other, you wonder sometimes if you’re doing the right thing by going along with this person’s proposals. If they’re successful, that concern diminishes, and you begin to have confidence in his or her programs,” he says.
Conforming your style to the CEO’s doesn’t mean that you should become a yes-man or -woman. Credibility is crucial to the acceptance of your programs. For HR—and you—to be credible, you have to take responsibility, even if it means bringing bad news to top management. “I respect an HR leader who can bring in bad news along with good news, who can advise and counsel, but can move on to the next item if the decision goes against the program,” Haggerty says. “Once I make the decision, the HR leader has to walk out of the room and implement the decision and drive it down through the HR organization,” he adds.
Sometimes, however, more persistence is called for. Keeler Brass, for example, implemented a new attendance policy three months ago. DeMaria had been against it at first and had insisted on taking a different approach. Six months later, when nothing had happened, the company’s president asked Shamley why he hadn’t complied. “I accused him of stonewalling, but he stood his ground. I had to do it his way—he wore me down,” DeMaria says. The program took effect (Shamley’s way) and is working well. “He was right about the program,” he says. “He’s my conscience. He makes sure we do what’s right. I don’t want a yes-man,” he explains.
“It’s a mistake to think that CEOs have all the answers. If they did, they could run companies without anyone else,” Shamley explains. “It’s incumbent on us to find solutions to the problems we have today and to promote those programs diligently within the company, even if it means convincing the CEO that they need to be done. In HR there has been too much deference to our seniors, and this has hurt. It’s important, I think, not to be sycophantic. We all have to have the courage to proceed with what we feel is the right thing,” he says. “We can’t do it, however, at the expense of alienating the people above us, below us and around us because that doesn’t get it done, either,” he adds.
The organization counts on HR to look out for the interests of employees. “Most CEOs have a sensitivity to the value of employees, but they’re going a mile a minute, making decisions on other things. They take comfort in the idea that HR is looking out for the work force and will come forward with the point of view of employees,” Potts says. It’s important to be a proactive ombudsman for employees. Not to do so destroys the credibility of human resources.
Another contributor to credibility is HR’s ability to coordinate programs with other functions. “Being in HR, we have certain biases in terms of programs. In other functions, people look at things differently. Don’t be at odds with those individuals, but try to work together,” Shamley says.
You can’t work well with other groups in the organization if you don’t have a good understanding of the business, and this understanding is vital to developing credibility. “If you don’t understand the business your company is in—really understand—you can’t be effective in depth,” Harrison says. He recommends joining industry associations and learning from every source available to you. “Study, search and scour. When you start to signal that you understand the subtleties of the business, you’re on your way,” he says. “If you don’t, there are ample opportunities to view you as just a staffer.”
Of course, there’s nothing like real business experience to give you this understanding. Spencer moved into a position as the HR representative for the commercial department at U.S. Steel. He had spent 12 years at several steel-producing locations and knew how steel was made. Seeing the marketing side of the business gave him a new perspective. “I discovered how we had to sell this stuff,” he says. This combination of production and marketing is an important asset that helps him when he develops programs.
Haggerty agrees that experience lends credibility. “How can a priest give advice on marital problems?” he asks. “Real-life experience sets the course.”
It also helps if you develop a reputation for openness, accuracy and honesty, according to Potts. “You don’t have to be the company chaplain, but in public and private, you have to demonstrate integrity or the things you try to sell won’t be credible,” Potts says.
Another way to gain credibility is to be proactive rather than reactive. This requires creativity, something too many HR people lack, according to Haggerty. “There’s a joke inside most companies that if there’s a debate, people in HR run to the rule book. It’s a major frustration that executive management has with HR people. They should throw away the rule book and do things by common sense,” he says.
“If you look at people who are successful, they’re in front of the curve, thinking about where the business is going,” Johnson says. Unless HR is business-focused, however, inviting the HR executive to sit in on strategic planning is a waste. “HR should earn the right to be part of strategic planning,” he says. He gives as an example the change in the objectives of EEO programs. These programs often began as a way for the company to stay out of trouble with government regulations (a reaction to a present need, rather than a proactive approach to anticipated future needs). At some point, human resources people began to realize that they needed a bridge to minority communities—to attract people who will make up an increasing proportion of the work force—if they wanted to remain fully staffed in their current locations. “Until EEO is put into a business-type context, things won’t happen,” Johnson explains.
Shamley refers to the proactive approach as offensive action. “Proposals are designed to move the organization forward, not to defend against things that are happening. In a defensive posture, it’s difficult to do things that are creative. It’s the old ‘If it ain’t broke’ mentality. If you wait until things are broken, they’re more difficult to fix. Fixing problems beforehand allows you considerable freedom to act when you have to be responsive—the problems aren’t controlling you. If you wait until you react, it’s too late,” Shamley says. “It isn’t a matter of whether things are going to change, because they are. Today’s CEOs are looking for the proactive approach to change. That’s what they expect of us. They may become impatient with us if we can’t provide that kind of thinking and that kind of program,” he adds.
Nothing builds credibility like a successful program, such as the CITE program at U.S. Steel’s Clairton works. “Once the CITE program became a success at Clairton, we moved it on to other locations as well,” Spencer says. This and other successful projects have helped Harris attain credibility within the organization. “This means that he’ll have a better probability of success when he presents a new training program. The first success is difficult to attain. It’s easier when you’re building off success,” Spencer explains.
In the ideal situation, the CEO takes such comfort in and values the opinions of HR so highly that he or she invites the HR executive to a one-on-one talk. “Not a formal meeting—just sitting in the office late in the day. Some CEOs never will operate that way. Others do, and when they do, HR can do a tremendous job for the organization,” Spencer says.
CEOs are becoming more open to softer HR issues.
Although it’s important to pay attention to the bottom-line impact of HR programs, CEOs today are increasingly open to the softer issues—team building, motivation, and so on. “The softer issues have become much more important for a CEO to consider, ironically, because of the new organizational paradigms, such as flatter organizations and increased emphasis on productivity,” Harrison observes. He says that people issues have become more important because, in a flatter organization, people are slammed together who didn’t interact when there were multiple layers insulating them from each other. People have to work together more closely than they have in the past.
“Today’s CEOs, like it or not, need to listen to initiatives from human resources that may have been perceived yesterday to be softer. Regardless of how the situation came about, that reality is a dynamic that pleads for HR initiatives to lubricate the process—to grease the wheels of the new organizational paradigms,” Harrison says. CEOs are aware of this and are more willing to make the investment in these programs than they were a few years ago.
For example, Harrison’s company periodically provides complete physical exams for its employees. “This was an initiative that an HR functionary came to us with some years ago,” he says. The program isn’t cheap—everyone from the chairman to the office messenger is covered. “We never see the results—they’re confidential—but in a fast-moving business environment, with our own stresses, the excitement and dynamism of the field, and the long hours, it’s important to consider that people might be shortchanging themselves. We can provide the physical audit and remove the cost factor,” he explains.
Harrison says that even without any concrete supporting evidence, he’s more than comfortable that the dollars spent on this program are bearing a benefit. “We’re spending thousands of dollars, but I’ll defend the program to the hilt,” he asserts.
“HR is the second-most important function in our organization. I’m the most important,” DeMaria says. “But then that’s probably my ego. HR probably is the most important,” he admits.
“Continuous improvement of HR programs brings a lot of credibility to the company, which brings profits, which keeps us in business,” DeMaria says. HR has to be visionary to help management make a profit.
By the time you make your presentation, you want the foundation laid and secure so that it’s no surprise to anyone involved, according to Shamley. To do this, you have to make the CEO aware of the concept long before the presentation occurs.
“Time helps set the idea in the CEO’s subconscious, even to the extent that when it’s presented, it becomes his or her own idea,” Shamley suggests. Use what you know about the individual and how he or she thinks to choose the terms and the perspective for these early communications of the idea.
DeMaria acknowledges that this approach has worked well for Shamley. “He gives me the big picture first. He identifies the problem and tells step-by-step what could be done. Then he puts on the quantifiers—cost, time and so on. Four days later, he gives me a little more. If he tried to hammer home the whole program at once, he’d fail. It’s the way you’d eat an elephant,” he explains, “one bite at a time.”
“One of the things I do for any project I start as an HR professional is to create an overview in the form of a white paper that describes the objectives of the program and the process that’s going to be used,” Harris says. “I detail the expected outcomes, resources and cost of doing the activity. This has to be a well-thought-out document, put together with the input of the users of the program,” Harris says. He goes on to explain that all the facts and figures pertaining to the project go into the white paper.
The white paper should include a description of:
- The objectives
- The process that will be used
- The expected outcomes
- The resources that will be necessary
- The cost of doing the activity.
“An HR person has to have a clear description of what he or she wants to do. That will become a part of the proposal,” Spencer says. HR at U.S. Steel did this as part of its presentation of the CITE program. This was the foundation for attracting interest.
Haggerty says that the most important issues he looks for in an HR program are: 1) how the company rates against the competition; 2) what the tangible benefits or the cost benefits to the company are; and 3) how fair the program is to the employee population. (If it isn’t something everyone is going to get, how difficult will it be to manage it?)
Don’t go overboard, however. “It’s critical that you keep the written proposal as simple and short as possible,” Shamley says. “The fewer pages you can use to present your program, the better.”
Prepare yourself for questions. Keep in mind that questions aren’t an attack; the CEO is only trying to improve understanding. “Anticipate what the questions will be. As a point of fact, you have to anticipate every single kind of question the CEO might have. Depending on the person, this may mean 50 to 100 questions. The CEO probably won’t ask all of them, but going through these questions also is a valuable exercise. It prepares you because then you’ve thought it through,” Shamley says.
You’re going to spend the CEO’s money. He or she will want to know what the company’s going to get in return. “Do your homework. Keep in mind that if you sell your program, and you’re right, your phone will start ringing. You’re perceived as being there to solve problems for the CEO,” Johnson says.
This means that you should gather all the pertinent information you can get your hands on, including what other companies are doing. “My experience is that CEOs and senior executives are very mindful of what others are doing. The company should take leadership and not follow everyone else, of course, but HR must be aware of what everyone else is doing and present it to the CEO factually,” Potts says.
Describing a program implemented at another company has the same effect as bringing in a consultant, according to Haggerty. “When you make a presentation, there’s a tendency for people to argue about it, but bring in a consultant, and everybody listens,” he says. If you show that this is the way McDonnell Douglas or some other company handles a problem and has had these results, it seems to have a better effect. “You have to beg, borrow and steal shamelessly to put together the combination of the best ideas.”
Be prepared to overcome negatives. “There can’t be any perceived threat. If there is, the fears must be alleviated so that the individual can understand what the benefits are—how much it will benefit the employees and the organization. Then the immediate and long-term cost impact has to be studied,” Shamley explains. “If there are any problems, management must know about them.”
Get key people on board.
The more you can get buy-in from people below the CEO, the easier it will be to get the CEO to approve the program. “The more time you spend building agreement, support and so on, the better,” Johnson says. He recommends trying to anticipate the people who will give you problems and getting their support. “Let them take their shots at the program. If there are any problems with it, you’ll find out.”
You should have discovered who the people are in the CEO’s inner circle. Ideally, when you presented your program, the CEO’s allies already would have commented on it. Harris arranges for supporters to talk about the proposal and its benefits and timeliness.
“As companies are restructured into strategic business units, unit managers have a larger say in the acceptance of a program,” Haggerty says. “HR has to spend time establishing credibility with business unit heads.”
If you can get a respected member of top management to sponsor the program, it simplifies the selling job.”I look for a sponsor for any program I’m advocating,” explains Spencer. “I try to find someone who can help me plan and move forward, and then sell the idea—the CFO or another member of top management—and make this person part of the process. That way, if I miss the judgment button, I’ll find out. If I miss an item that’s important, it could be a long time before I can get it across,” he says. Top management’s input will let you know if you’re going off-track before you reveal your program to the CEO.
While you’re thinking about getting support for your plan, keep in mind that you’re going to have to sell the program to other stakeholders after the CEO buys it. Don’t forget line and division managers, and other people who will be involved in implementing the program. This is the time to lay the groundwork for the success of the program.
Make a good presentation.
Once your preparations are done, send the CEO a written memo, which would have an analysis and some factual information, Potts advises. “In my experience, senior executives are very good about reading memos and reports from key staff, usually within 24 hours,” he says. In the memo, you should request a meeting to discuss the issue. “The technique here is to try to have the meeting for discussion only, not for the immediate decision. The top executive engages in more meaningful, thoughtful dialogue without the pressure of having to say yes or no,” he says.
DeMaria, a top executive who appreciates this approach, says, “I like presentations on a time scale that allows time to consider all the issues, so that there’s no need to make an 11th-hour decision. It’s a mistake to make quick, radical changes without taking the time to think about it. It’s traumatic to employees—and to me.”
Remember that while you were studying the CEO, you should have discovered the best environment for presenting programs. Try to arrange to have your meeting at the best time and in the best place. If you can set your own time, set it for when the CEO is most receptive. If, on the day your presentation is scheduled, you run into your top executive in the hallway, and he or she seems upset, it might be a good idea to try to reschedule, according to Dunn. (And brush up on your selling techniques. Part of the presentation will be a sales job.)
Keep it short.
When considering how you’ll conduct the presentation, keep in mind that senior management is always pressed for time. “CEOs really do spend most of their internal time listening to presentations or sales pitches in one form or another. The presenter should keep the situation in perspective,” Dunn explains. “This program may be your biggest deal this week, but for the CEO, it’s the 50th-biggest deal this week. Realistically, the time of the CEO is the most precious of anyone in the organization,” he says. He particularly advises against trying to be entertaining.
Potts points out that a survey of HR executives in management development revealed that the competition for the time of the senior executive was the biggest roadblock to getting attention on a problem. Look for ways to reduce the time needed for understanding, such as use of visuals and concrete examples.
Don’t drop all your ammunition on the CEO—it may not be necessary and it could use up valuable time. “Understate. If the CEO cuts you off, you’ve blown it. Don’t build a spaceship if a little red wagon will do,” says Dunn.
At the same time, you should be thorough. The CEO wants to have a good justification for making a decision. Include an actuarial statement, analysis and well-thought-out recommendations. If you fail to do this, your top executive won’t move quickly and may not move at all, according to Harris. This mistake once cost him a program. “Fifteen years ago, we wanted to keep the training center open at a plant location during a difficult time. The cost-benefit numbers would have nailed it down,” he says.
The presentation should stress the program’s benefits. These then become attractive to the CEO or president and provide a reason for moving forward. If the CEO wants the backup, you’ll have to have it available. Some top executives are happy without it; others literally test you to see that you follow through. “If they perceive that you haven’t followed through, they’ll tear the program apart. Once they see that you’ve done your homework and covered the bases, they’ll go through with it if it’s a good program,” Shamley says.
“One of the things HR people run into is talking HRese instead of business language,” Spencer points out. Try to talk like a businessperson. Use business terms, keeping in mind the background of the individual, Spencer recommends.
The CITE program, for example, cost U.S. Steel $2 million. “For each program or project, whenever you’re trying to sell something and there’s an expenditure involved, you need to show a budget,” Harris says.
“Productivity improved at Clairton,” Spencer says. This kind of benefit can be evaluated, as can the reduction in money spent on pollution citations. There may be other types of impact that can’t be quantified so easily, however. The CITE program has been recognized by government agencies for its accomplishment. Having the community align with the facility instead of viewing it as a dirty polluter is a clear benefit of the program, but it’s difficult to put a dollar value to this kind of benefit. The bottom line is: What is the budget? What will it cost? Show the return on investment if you can,” Harris says.
“Tell how the program will benefit both the employees and the company,” Shamley says. “Try to show the immediate and long-term impact. Identify any potential problems and short-term problems that management must know about so that they can determine what needs to be done,” he says.
Sometimes there are several viable alternate solutions to the problem—often quite similar, but having some differences. Come prepared with several of these alternatives for your program. Present the alternative that you think will be the most effective and provide a few of the alternatives to provide some choice. “This allows some latitude for the CEO to make the decision,” Potts points out.
Don’t forget that communication must be two-way. Part of communication is listening. Pay attention to everything the CEO says during the presentation, as well as any nonverbal communication. Ask yourself what he or she means; don’t just assume the obvious. Ask questions to get a better idea. During the presentation, you may be able to get a clearer picture of what the CEO’s key issues are—what he or she feels is important—and then build your proposal or recommendations around that, making adjustments as you go. This means being prepared with a lot of backup material. “Depending on the program’s potential concerns, there may be tremendous numbers of reports to generate to support the case,” Shamley says.
“Knowing how to communicate with executives is an intuitive skill that not many people have,” Dunn says. “It can make the difference in whether or not you succeed.”
You can have the best ideas in the world, according to Potts, but if you don’t know how to communicate these ideas in an effective way, few of your ideas will become reality. “Effective communication is the difference between outstanding and mediocre—and increases your ability to impact the CEO,” he says.
Your objective during the presentation is to get the CEO to own the idea. (You laid the foundation for this earlier.) “If the CEO’s name goes on the program, so much the better,” Shamley says. This will ensure the support of not only the CEO but the employees as well. Anything that comes out with the boss’s signature is taken seriously.
If your program is rejected in spite of its merits and your hard work, don’t give up. Perhaps the time wasn’t right. Keep collecting data as they become available so that you’ll be ready in case something happens to move your program off the back burner.
If you feel the program is urgent and that your CEO has rejected it because of a lack of foresight, “You’re relegated either to waiting until the CEO retires or leaving the company and going somewhere else,” Shamley says.
There are companies in which you won’t be allowed to do what you want to do, no matter how good you are, Johnson observes. “You can spend time trying to change the place, but culture is changed by the boss, not HR. HR can be a strong leader, a great resource and the person to carry the banner, but if the boss doesn’t want to do it, things aren’t going to change,” he says.
On the other hand, if you’re successful in selling your program to the CEO, your work is just beginning. “The difficult part is making sure that employees understand what the program means—because if they understand it, they’ll see how it’s going to impact them,” Shamley says.
Shamley has proven his worth at Keeler Brass. DeMaria compares him to a quarterback. “I don’t get to talk with him often. I spend much more time in sales, engineering and production. They take time. But if he has something to say, he gets in to see me, dodging all the obstacles. If he needs to talk with me alone, I clean out my office. I know that when he comes charging in here, it must be important,” he says. That’s offensive action.
Personnel Journal, May 1993, Vol. 72, No. 5, pp. 112-126.