Throwing the Switch

When you disagree with a boss's decision or need to champion a change in company policy, here's how to launch a challenge.

By Pamela Babcock Dec 1, 2003

HR Magazine, December 2003

Raising questions or challenging the CEO could be critical to your success in HR and the future of your company.

But before you charge into your boss’s office fists pounding, you should take stock: Make sure you’ve established a good relationship, you understand the boss’s priorities and you’ve considered every possible angle of your argument.

“You have to start steering 20 miles from the turn,” says Lynda Ford, SPHR, president of The Ford Group, an HR consulting firm in Rome, N.Y. It’s part of the job, she says, to help a CEO correct a perilous course or remain on track. HR professionals often get mired in the minutia but they need to relate their work to the entire organization and its strategic goals. “That’s where you’re going to have the greatest impact.”

After all, your CEO or president doesn’t have all the answers; he relies on executives, including HR, to be the eyes and ears of the organization. Questioning the one in charge, of course, can make you anxiety-ridden, particularly during turbulent economic times. The natural reaction for many people whose decisions are questioned is defensiveness and resistance.

So just how can an HR professional successfully challenge a CEO or other executive and convince that person to change his or her mind? There are several strategies you can use to influence or persuade.

Laying the Groundwork

First, pick your battles so you are bringing only the most important matters upstairs. Elizabeth Gibson, an author, consultant and management psychologist with RHR International Co. in Wimberley, Texas, says HR professionals should challenge the CEO or high-level boss on “any issue that affects the capacity or the capability of the company to execute the strategy.”

You can establish ground rules even before you get the job. Ann D. Burford, vice president of HR for the Eastern Carolina division of Time Warner Cable in Wilmington, N.C., tested the waters when meeting both of her future presidents.

“When we interviewed, I said ‘if you want a “yes” person, please don’t hire me because we’ll both be miserable,’ ” Burford recalls. She also asked how her future bosses would want her to address a sensitive subject or difference of opinion. If you ask about this upfront, you won’t end up working for someone who won’t tolerate tough questions, she says.

Burford then used her observation skills to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues over time. “There are times when I’ve approached my president with an issue and can tell he has that look,” says Burford. “He doesn’t say anything, and I say ‘is this one of those “It’s Not a Democracy” issues?’ and he’ll say ‘yeah.’”

Through relationship building, you can discover the boss’s hot buttons. Ford learned this a little too late when she challenged her CEO on an employee’s performance. She found out, to her dismay, that he despised the term “politically correct.”

“When I said the phrase, my CEO almost went through the roof,” Ford recalls. “He told me he hated that phrase and I could not speak to him about anything else to do with this employee’s performance.”

Another element to laying the groundwork is keying in on your CEO’s goals and priorities for the business. “Link your cause to helping achieve that, and then you will be viewed as part of the team, rather than an obstacle or a gadfly,” advises Ben Rosen, a management professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “The ability to link a particular cause to a boss’s highest priorities is a good way to get a fair hearing about it.”

As a former manager, Ford discovered one of her CEO’s biggest concerns when she tried to change a policy on prescreening and interviewing prospective employees for the company’s 40 sites, which was done by a recruiter at headquarters.

“[The hires] went to whichever manager was squawking the loudest,” says Ford, who authored FAST52: Building an Exceptional Workplace Environment (Ardan Press, 2002). “But each site had its own culture and environment, and not everybody was a good fit.” As a result, turnover rose. When Ford recommended that the recruiter interview at each site, the CEO initially quashed the idea.

“He said, ‘I don’t understand why we have to waste time with people out of the office,’ ” Ford recalls. “His perception was if you’re not strapped to your desk in corporate, you’re not being productive.”

But she latched on to his buzzword.

“To me, the key words were ‘wasting time.’ Because to him, wasting time meant money out the window,” Ford says. She then compared the cost of making a bad hire vs. getting the recruiter out of the office more. “It was very evident that we were going to get a huge return on investment,” Ford says. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’ ”

The result: The company’s list of open positions went from just over 70 to 16 in less than a month. The time-to-fill cycle decreased, which was critical to controlling overtime. And HR more successfully assessed candidates’ “fit” factor, leading to decreased turnover.

Indeed, for high-level HR executives, it pays to develop a track record. “Then you have a halo of trust around you and that gives you a whole lot of credibility if you keep [the CEO] from stepping on some corporate landmines or from saying something that he will regret later,” Rosen says.

Anything relating to the CEO’s behavior or leadership style, says Gibson, is going to be difficult to broach. “But usually that’s the stuff that needs to be addressed the most, since the farther you go up the ladder, the less feedback you get and the more you need it because the impact is much greater,” she says.

The Presentation

Your observations will tell you whether your CEO prefers detailed reports or short summaries, and if it’s better to present a challenge on paper or in person.

“Brainstorming and practicing are always good ideas,” recommends Kathleen Wells, a career coach and owner of Hereford, Ariz.-based Coaches That Care. “You’ll be more relaxed and prepared using rehearsal before your meeting.” A trustworthy colleague can evaluate whether your argument hangs together logically and can offer worst-case scenario questions. Tape recording your presentation also helps objectify it in a positive fashion.

You can maximize credibility, draw your boss’s full attention and have the best chance for persuasion if you practice your approach and time it appropriately.

For instance, if Burford has an idea that is “way out of the box,” she typically writes it up and leaves it with her president so he can consider pros and cons, and then she schedules a meeting later.

“Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot because we go to them and want a decision right then and there,” Burford says. While there are times a speedy resolution is called for, the best bet usually is to provide as much information as possible and give your boss time to think. That way you don’t get a reputation for blowing things out of proportion at every perceived crisis.

“Then, when I give him something at the last minute, he knows that I have no choice,” Burford adds.

At meeting time, it’s critical to demonstrate supporting information. “Have your facts straight, know how a solution could be put into place and how it would benefit the company,” suggests Wells. “Have all this information at your fingertips and provide copies to the manager for them to review later.”

Be prepared to cite best practices at other companies or to draw outside support, perhaps from a consultant. You’re in a vulnerable position if your boss asks a question you haven’t anticipated. Build the business case and show what’s in it for the company and what’s in it for your boss.

Being prepared will help you remain level-headed. It’s important to your credibility to avoid the drama of getting upset and presenting the case emotionally. “Like any relationship, avoid accusatory statements and don’t wave a red flag at them,” says Wells. “Avoid ‘you’ statements and stick with ‘we’ or ‘I’ statements so you do not come across as pointing fingers.”

That strategy worked for Virgil Seibold, PHR, training and development coordinator at Phoenix International in Fargo, N.D. He grew frustrated after spending time and resources selecting training courses for employees, only to have weak attendance.

Rather than venting to his general manager, he approached him about mandating training attendance and provided a report of costs to run a class that’s not full, then to reschedule and promote a new class.

“By providing the actual cost involved rather than just my frustration and emotion, I was able to convince the GM [general manager], and he, in turn, convinced the CEO that there needs to be an attendance policy on all training,” Seibold says.

But opinions vary on whether to get colleagues on board for a challenge to existing policy, since there’s a tenuous line between building consensus and appearing to gang up on the boss. Some HR veterans suggest finding someone in manufacturing, finance or other departments to praise the proposal as good for the entire company.

However, Ford cautions that this strategy could backfire. “If you’re trying to implement some policy change, you might want to go to colleagues and talk to them about how they feel—that’s called doing your homework. But if the boss is adamantly opposed to something and you go to him and say, ‘I talked to all 12 senior managers, and they all support this,’ that’s like high school.”

Follow Up

If your boss agrees with your proposal, congratulate yourself on a job well done and follow up with a memo outlining what you agreed on and next steps. If you’re asked to provide more information, find out when your boss expects it or estimate how long it will take to gather. Don’t make promises you can’t deliver.

William D. Young, SPHR, a senior consultant specializing in leadership, learning and performance with The Williams Companies Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., says get back as quickly as possible—with one exception. “If there’s real emotion behind it, it’s sometimes good to let a little distance pass before you come back to it again,” Young says. “But in general, you want to strike while the iron is hot.”

If your idea is panned, how you recover and regain your position can affect the outcome of future challenges.

Experts agree you should acknowledge the opposing standpoint, study the reasoning and perhaps find ways to counter resistance with facts or figures. Most important, don’t personalize the rejection. There may be other factors involved in the decision, such as bottom-line economics, that you may not be aware of.

“They may have information to which you are not privy that would cast a whole new light on [the situation],” says Wells. “Know you did your best and live with the decision. Keep a positive thought about what you tried to accomplish and how professionally you presented your data.”

Also, remain flexible, and don’t get locked into one solution. Offer to work with objections and perhaps fine-tune the plan. Ford recalls a senior management meeting about “big problems” at a worksite, including high turnover and complaints about a manager’s style. The group wanted Ford, who had been on the job just two weeks, to “go in and nail this person for all these transgressions.”

“I said to the CEO that I’m not really comfortable going in to nail somebody, but I am comfortable finding out what the root cause of the problem is and putting in a process to fix it,” Ford recalls. The CEO replied: “Lynda, is this some kind of TQM [total quality management] crap?” Ford replied: “It’s TQM, but I wouldn’t call it crap.”

The CEO asked for a plan the following day, and Ford says her report garnered “quite a lot of laughter” among executives. “They thought this quality ‘crap’ that I was talking about was absolutely ridiculous.”

But eventually they bought into it. Four years later, the company received a state award for excellence in quality processes. Ford says the turning point happened when another executive came on board championing TQM. Hearing the benefits from this executive in addition to Ford helped convince the other executives to commit to TQM.

The lesson: Don’t be gun shy about challenging your boss. Patience and persistence can pay off.

“Sometimes if you know something is right, you kind of have to hang in there and not be too abrasive about it,” Ford says. “If it’s the right thing for the organization, eventually they will come around.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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