CEOs need the human touch too

Learning & Development Magazine

A good HR manager has the guts to tackle their boss’s behaviour, argues Stephen Schneider

Organisations have an infinite ability to attract people with curious personality aspects, particularly to the top roles. This can be both good news and bad. Organisations need leaders with driving and compulsive personalities to get things done, but the price, in terms of the negative impact these individuals have on other people, can be too high. The challenge for HR is to bring out the best in these people, at the same time as minimising the worst effects. In an earlier article in this series (Learning & Development, November 2004) we looked at how the chairman of a traditional British organisation appointed a 'new style' CEO to shake it up. The chairman was then surprised when the abrasive Antipodean started to rub people up the wrong way. Moreover, the CEO couldn't understand why the chairman told him he was often seen as cold and occasionally hostile by others.

It took sensitivity and insight on the part of the HR manager to help the CEO understand where the chairman was coming from. And it took guts and resilience to confront the CEO with the real issues around his personality. How the HR manager approached this problem serves to illustrate that there is a role for HR professionals in helping these hugely successful but flawed individuals to engage with their issues.

In my experience, it works best when pressure to change comes from an individual's boss, who also alerts the individual to the possibility of using the HR department for support. At this point the HR professional must provide the individual with the frank feedback they need to be able to see the issue, with the proper evidence to back it up, and challenge them on their behaviour.

In our case study, the HR manager engaged the chief executive in a series of discussions, in such a way that it could be seen as positive by the CEO. Her feedback stressed the value the organisation placed on the CEO, but suggested that if he could modify his style by a mere 10% he could get a lot more out of his team.

The more detailed work with the CEO was done through external professional support at CPS. The HR manager recognised that the CEO needed to work on some sensitive issues relating to his family background. Once the HR manager had made her contribution – putting in hours of private discussion to get the CEO to the point of accepting the need to enter a coaching programme and see it as a positive path – she recommended the chief executive to us.

On analysis, it became apparent that his issues emanated from the loss of his father in early life. He had spent his entire working life attempting to prove his worth to the father he never had in the crucial years of his upbringing. The good news was that this personal background had given the CEO tremendous drive to achieve; the bad news was that it precipitated his bruising behaviour.

Through extensive mentoring and coaching, he came to realise that he had to find a new way to validate himself and recognise he was doing a good job, thus relieving the pressure on himself and others.

The challenge for HR is to come out from behind a preoccupation with competency frameworks, procedure and policies and try some real human contact that can make a difference. Those who approach their CEO and say, 'if you carry on behaving like that, here's what the outcome will be', will be the ones to show the true value to the board of the HR function.

There is a point here, too, for people in authority in organisations. They need to understand how they can use the HR team in a constructive way and, moreover, fill HR departments with individuals who are prepared to take on the challenging and demanding personalities that usually make up the top team and be prepared to give them the feedback they need to understand their effect on others – and what they can do about it.