Chief executives sit in a lonely position, where confidentiality and organizational stability often go hand in hand. When a CEO has a major dilemma involving another C-suite leader, they often turn to their head of HR for support in navigating the challenge. But where do they turn when they are struggling with a situation that is not HR-related?
Often, the challenges CEOs face are operational in nature. And while most operational issues end up impacting people, it’s not always obvious that the HR leader may be a good sounding board. But a sounding board is exactly what every strong CHRO should be. Not only does the CHRO help foresee and plan for the human impact of business decisions, they also provide the C-suite with a safe place to discuss issues without fear.
As the world of work has evolved through crisis and major disruptions—including the 2008 recession, the pandemic and the explosion of remote work—CHROs have cemented their role as executive coaches to the leadership team. But this role is not only useful in times of crisis.
As a senior HR leader, I have often found myself in the role of an executive coach, and as I have applied my skills in guiding the C-suite through crises and transformation, the need for this role has become even clearer.
For example, at one of my prior roles, I was brought into discussions by the CEO regarding a major reduction in staff that may affect my own role as well. I was able to act as a sounding board—even though the decision could have affected me—because I had built that level of trust with the CEO in my professionalism and objective judgement. Of course, I had my own feelings about the situation. But at that moment the CEO needed a sounding board for not only the impending personnel actions but also ways we might save the situation.
In this case, the CEO was really struggling with the weight of the decisions ahead and had no one else to turn to. The CEO could not risk speaking to other members of leadership for fear they may panic or breach confidentiality, making the situation even worse. As we discussed the problem objectively, I was able to help the CEO determine how long we could hold on and structure a plan that would save as many jobs as possible through some creative methods of coupling layoffs with other cost-reduction methods.
Such is the role of an executive coach. When that hat is on, we are no longer the CHRO. We are there to listen and coach, helping the C-suite solve problems well outside the traditional purview of human resources by acting as the confidante and coach that is necessary.
This experience led me to where I am today, occupying a niche between coach and transformational business leader, where my view of HR is broad. Almost every aspect of business touches people; you would be hard-pressed to find something that does not in some way. An executive coach who is a trustworthy ally in decision-making and helps hold executives accountable and keep their perspective steady is an invaluable asset to the organization. This also guarantees the CHRO always has a seat at the table, because they are relied upon to help set that table.
Grow Your Coaching Skills: 6 Steps
How do you transition to add executive coaching to your CHRO toolbox? Here are a few methods I have found to be successful in my career:
- Be curious. Truly be interested in getting to know your executive team members, their strengths, their opportunities and what keeps them up at night.
- Spend one-on-one time. Try to spend solo time with each member of the executive team and set the tone for confidential conversations where they are free to discuss any needs or concerns.
- Coach people to find their own solutions. Offer guidance if asked. But if not, coach leaders to find their own solutions to the dilemmas they present. You do not need to be an expert in their area of the business to be an effective coach.
- Stay neutral. Seek to resolve conflicts and encourage team cohesion. If the issue discussed involves friction with another member of leadership, this is especially important. Maintaining a neutral view and helping the executive see that the other leader’s perspective may simply differ can be a powerful way to resolve conflicts and overcome feelings of dissonance.
- Build trust one interaction at a time. Create a safe space in each conversation. Trust is built slowly, over many interactions. The more times you maintain confidentiality, show up to support your leaders and provide insights they can use, the more trust grows.
- Keep personal feelings out of it. It can be tempting to base how we respond on the outcome we would like to see. But that is not the role of a coach. A coach remains neutral and guides the person to the outcome that is best for them and the organization. This is hard to do sometimes, but the more you practice, the easier it will become.
The core of effective coaching is building trust. I have found these six methods are highly effective in establishing trust and setting up a healthy dynamic of coaching and listening. When C-suite leaders have a neutral confidante and coach, they can truly excel in ways they otherwise cannot in a silo.
Lauren Fast is the chief people officer at iS Clinical, as well as an executive coach and consultant.