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An HR Leader's Guide to Building Strong C-Suite Relationships

In the C-suite, CHROs need to embrace their role as a changemaker rather than as a peacekeeper. Here’s a guide to navigating conflict and forming partnerships at the top.

woman leading board meeting photo

When an HR leader joins the ranks of C-suite executives, they must learn to navigate a whole new web of relationships. Sometimes that leads to tension and conflict with other executives, which can be an uncomfortable experience for HR leaders who are used to being their organization’s peacekeepers.

The C-suite is full of strong personalities with very different priorities. Disagreements are inevitable, but they don’t have to derail your agenda. HR leaders must hold their ground while still building consensus and influencing others.

“Sometimes it’s not purely about ownership and authority but about the power of influencing,” says Gianna Driver, CHRO at software firm Exabeam.

Here are tips from Driver and another experienced CHRO on how they successfully navigate conflict with senior leaders and build connections within their executive teams.

On Making Proactive Partnerships

Building solid relationships with other executives helps ensure that you’re seen as a strategic partner within the C-suite. Before any conflict arises or any big decisions are made, take time to establish collaborative relationships with the other executives.

“It’s important for HR executives to make an effort to understand the goals, priorities and challenges of the other leaders within the organization,” notes Tia Smith, VP of global talent at Collaborative Solutions, a finance and HR consulting firm. “When we understand other leaders’ perspectives, we demonstrate an interest to collaborate and show them we value their contributions and that it’s not just our agenda we’re always trying to push on them.”

Moreover, once you fully grasp their goals, Smith says, you can further position yourself as a strategic partner because you have access to the people-related insights, data and analytics that could contribute to their decision-making process.

On Building Relationships and Expertise

HR touches every part of a business, so don’t hesitate to get involved with projects outside your usual scope. Smith notes that participating in outside initiatives allows HR leaders to contribute expertise and insights while building relationships and demonstrating their value, not just from an HR lens but cross-functionally.

“We tend to stay in our bubble a lot within HR,” Smith says. “But it’s important to know how the rest of the business works, and, if there are other, big initiatives within the organization that fall outside of HR’s traditional scope, to get involved and become a contributor in some way.”

Start by listening in. Then, consider contributing to discussions on everything from business strategy to financial planning to operational efficiency, to show your value beyond the traditional HR purview. You may find executives asking you to collaborate after seeing your expertise, or find an opportunity you want to put into the ear of the CEO or an executive you want to partner with. If you see it, go for it, but first, you have to listen and look for it.

On Collaborating with Other Leaders

The CEO has tasked you with working on an initiative alongside another C-suite executive. Naturally, you want to ensure that your voice and priorities are heard. You and the other executive will likely come into this project with different agendas, but remember that you ultimately have the same goal of enhancing the business.

To begin, “align on those common goals and the shared purpose of the task by clearly articulating how the desired outcomes will impact and benefit you and the other executive,” Smith says. From there, “it helps to identify the unique contributions each person will bring to the table and find ways to combine those strengths to make even better outcomes.”

It’s also vital to define how you will engage and communicate with one another throughout the project. The RACI model (a responsibility assignment matrix that stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) is one that Driver suggests leaders can use to clearly articulate roles and expectations at the onset to avoid confusion or conflict later.

If a collaboration gets off track, call it in without being combative. When things go awry with another executive, “approach the situation with respect and clarity, and not blame statements, so that it’s collaborative,” Driver explains. To do this, focus on using “I-statements.”

If an issue arises, Driver suggests saying something like: “I was looking through my notes and noticed that at the onset, we’d agreed on XYZ. I don’t feel like we’re holding up that arrangement. Is there something I can do to help you? Is there something else going on that I’m not aware of?” (Yes, you can still say this even if you’re collaborating directly with the CEO.)

On Checking In With Yourself

In communicating with others, don’t forget to check in with yourself. “It’s important to advocate for ourselves [as HR leaders] and be assertive, but we should also be reflective because those things are not mutually exclusive,” Driver notes.

To do that, take a moment to self-reflect. “If you weren’t included in a meeting or a series of meetings, ask yourself, was this a rare event, an oversight, or was this intentional? Be reflective and consider how you’re showing up,” Driver suggests.

After a particularly difficult incident, it can be tough to bounce back. Consider making a plan of action for how to present your case differently next time. But don’t make the mistake of taking all of the blame if it’s not yours. In your self-reflection, consider whether the conflict is related to the overall work environment, systemic issues or stereotypes that require a targeted conversation with your CEO.

Should self-reflection leave you feeling stuck, seek feedback from one of those trusted relationships you’ve been building.

On Persuasion

The art of persuasion will come in handy whether you’re trying to convince the CEO of your people-first strategy or get another executive to see an issue through the HR lens. One of the most vital parts of persuasion is understanding your audience. Before sharing your point of view, you’ll benefit from understanding what the executive you’re trying to convince is most concerned with. To do that, get good at active listening.

“Active listening helps you understand the values and principles guiding the other person’s decision-making, which you can use to craft your messaging in a way that appeals to those values and demonstrates how your point of view aligns with theirs,” Smith explains.

It’s also important to size up your audience and know how they like to see information. Smith points out: “Some executives are focused on a number on a spreadsheet. They want to get to that number, and we in HR are focused on the people who make that number possible. So anytime you implement a new process or policy, as HR leaders, it’s important to show how employee engagement supports getting to that number.”

On Preventing Conflict

Being strategic partners and gaining trust will, of course, help you prevent conflict. But if you and another executive find yourself in a situation that could become contentious, Driver suggests having a pre-meet with that executive to give them a heads up and ask if they have feedback.

“I’ve found that proactively extending the communication branch has helped build that relationship, because the other person realizes there’s no ulterior motive, no secret agenda,” Driver says.

Smith agrees, advising to “always seek input, because many leaders often feel like HR is just pushing all the time.”

Eventually, the inevitable will happen, and you will come into conflict with another executive (even if you’ve done everything “right”). That conflict may be about a policy, an employee or a business decision.

“Any relationship has high points, low points and in-between points,” Driver says. “Whenever something’s at a low point, talk about it. Difficult conversations are difficult, but I find that every single time, the other person and I walk away feeling good afterward. It’s always like, ‘Wow, that was a tough conversation, but we’ve increased respect.’ ”

Consider, too, meeting conflict from a place of curiosity rather than contempt. For example, Driver was once in an executive meeting where she made a comment that was quickly minimized. Later, a fellow executive said the same thing differently, and everyone, including the CEO, commended it as a fabulous idea.

Feeling slighted, Driver later privately went to the CEO and gently pointed out she’d made the same point. She approached her conversation with curiosity and not contempt by asking if there was anything she could have done to communicate her point more effectively in the first place, given the other person had said the same thing as she did. With this approach, the CEO heard her and simultaneously realized his error in judgment.

However, the reality is that this approach won’t always work. Should tough conversations not lead anywhere or conflict repeat, do not ignore it. Call it out louder by bringing the situation (along with a suggested solution) to your boss or CEO. Consider also whether the conflict is environmental or interpersonal, as it may be an indication of how the organization approaches conflict or a deeper systemic issue.

On Implementing a Decision You Disagree With

You may have tried persuasion, and it still didn’t go your way. Now, you’re responsible for implementing a policy you disagree with. Step back and look at the bigger picture.

“Even if, personally, we disagree with some of the decisions made or the policies they’re asking us to put forward, our role is to support the overall objectives of the organization,” Smith says. “There’s nothing wrong with going back to the CEO or whoever it was that made the final decision to gain more of their perspective. That understanding will help us approach the implementation process with great clarity.”

Moving forward, look for opportunities to influence future decisions. “It’s always important to keep an eye out for future opportunities that come along, to be able to influence similar decisions based on what you learned from that last one,” Smith says. And when you see these opportunities, don’t be afraid to get into the ear of the CEO.

On Moving Forward from Conflict

In the wake of conflict, be objective by “focusing on building relationships with decision-makers and not burning bridges because you didn’t necessarily get (what you thought was) the right output,” Smith offers. To do that, “Make sure you separate your personal opinion from your professional responsibility and, most importantly, know how to recognize the difference.”

It’s also key to be kind. “When mistakes happen, it’s about accountability, yes, but it’s also about kindness and making sure you don’t make people look bad or call them out publicly,” Driver notes. Go back to those “I-statements” when bringing up issues, but do so in private. When in doubt, lead by example from how you move forward from conflict—because your team will be watching.

Finally, move on (even if just for now). “Decisions are not always firm, final and forever,” Driver says. “Many times, we may choose to go down this path or implement this policy and make this choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t alter, change and evolve that decision down the road.”

A Final Note

Remember: Influencing is not always about getting your way. Success for the CHRO means building a better workplace. That doesn’t mean the rest of the C-suite wants the workplace to be bad. They just approach these problems from a different angle and must be reminded or shown how policies impact workers and affect the bottom line. As Smith says, “Executives want to get to the same place; we’re just coming at it from different perspectives.”

Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t, but you still must work together. And, at the end of the day, if you approach conflict from a place of respect and open communication, you will be helping to foster a culture of constructive problem-solving and effective collaboration. And if ever you’re still in doubt, consider this quote from leadership researcher Brené Brown: “I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.”



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