How to 'Soft Power' Your Way to a Senior Leadership Role

By Arlene S. Hirsch April 14, 2017
How to Soft Power Your Way to a Senior Leadership Role

​Shortly after Jule Kucera signed on as the director of learning and development at Equity Office Properties in Chicago, a colleague invited her to a strategy meeting led by a vice president. On her way into the meeting, the vice president stopped her at the door. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "You're HR. You don't belong here."

Kucera retreated—temporarily—to establish her plan of action to join the strategy meeting. After observing the team, she zeroed in on a manager who the vice president regarded highly. She looked for a problem that the manager had that her expertise could help solve, and then offered to work on it with him.

The team's performance improved, the vice president took note, and the manager credited Kucera's assistance. One year later, she was invited to the strategy meeting. Three years later, the vice president wouldn't hold a strategy meeting without her.

Her advice to others in similar situations: "Don't let them eat you alive. Prove you belong to be there."

Kucera's success is an example of using "soft power." Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others, according to the man who coined the term in the 1980s—Joseph Nye Jr., distinguished service professor at Harvard University and former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  In the business world, he said in a speech before the Center for Public Leadership in 2004, he said, "Smart executives know that leadership is not just a matter of issuing commands, but also involves leading by example and attracting others to do what you want."

To that end, it's important to differentiate between soft power and the hard power of coercion and threats, said Derchat Keltner, a social psychologist and author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (Penguin Press, 2016).

"Coercive power forces people to do things. Soft power inspires them," Keltner said. "Soft power relies on generosity and empowerment rather than harm and manipulation. It depends upon empathy, compassion and respect."

Respect is a reciprocal process: To earn the respect of others, you must respect their wishes and priorities. You also must understand that a senior leadership role is not a gift or an entitlement, Keltner said, but instead is earned through words, actions and accomplishments. Start with understanding what current leadership wants and expects from their HR leaders—and then deliver.

Do Your Homework

To ensure that HR isn't relegated to the bottom of the executive totem pole, you must demonstrate that the "people side of the business" advances the leadership agenda.

"CEOs want to talk about HR through a business lens, and for HR leaders to show that HR priorities support the top business priorities," said Natalie Michael, chair of the MacKay CEO Forum in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada—a networking group for business leaders—and an executive coach with the Karmichael Group in Vancouver.  "Although they value 'heart' in the HR function, they also want HR executives who have invested in developing their business acumen."

"When a business leader tells you to 'Speak business language,' they are really saying that 'I want you to understand my problems,'" said Carol E.M. Anderson, a principal with Anderson Performance Partners, a Florida HR consulting firm, and author of Repurposing HR: From a Cost Center to a Business Accelerator (SHRM, 2015).

Anderson recommends working side-by-side with employees and managers throughout the organization to learn firsthand about their problems and challenges. When she was a divisional vice president of employer relations at Thalhimers department store in Richmond, Va.,  Anderson prioritized spending time "in the field" talking to sales associates, store managers and operations managers.

When she left to become chief learning officer at Orlando Health in Florida, her participation in cross-functional teams widened and deepened her understanding of the organization and its people.

Rotational assignments are another way to gain traction. Todd Averett was building his HR career at Payless, a footwear retailer based in Topeka, Kansas. He studied the organization as if it were the most important course he ever needed to ace. He read everything he could find about the company, attended conferences and meetings, and reached out to people in other departments.

Averett, who is now president of Leading People Partners, a leadership and executive coaching firm in Topeka, believes that it's important to establish credibility on multiple fronts:  with employees, senior leadership and other stakeholders. 

"When you have strong relationships with employees and have proved your competence in your role, you will also have greater influence with leadership," he said.

A Leader Needs Followers

It's not enough to whisper sweet strategy in your CEO's ear if you can't demonstrate your leadership capabilities within the HR function. This includes the ability to motivate, engage and inspire other HR colleagues. 

"Being strategic in HR means bringing together 'all things people' in such a way that we can answer the question, 'How are our people performing, and what impact does that have on the bottom line?' " Anderson said.

She recommends a holistic approach that empowers the entire HR team to share ideas and potential solutions so that everyone's perspective and opinion is heard and valued, the solutions are comprehensive and multifaceted, and everyone on the team has a stake in the outcome.

For example, when dealing with turnover problems, she finds it helpful to hear different perspectives from recruitment, compensation, employee relations and learning.

Coaching Upward and Across

During recent meetings of Michael's CEO forum, two relationship competencies showed up on the CEOs' "wish list." Many CEOs wanted HR to provide guidance on how to manage difficult conversations and strengthen their leadership teams. To do that, HR professionals need to build their own emotional intelligence (EQ) as well as the EQ of the people they work with and for.  

Daniel Goleman, a leading expert on EQ and the author of Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence (More Than Sound, 2011), breaks EQ down into four core competencies:

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-management.
  • Empathy.
  • Relationship skills.

Russell Cullingworth, president of EQAdvantage, a Vancouver consulting company, teaches HR professionals (and other business leaders) how to develop greater EQ in order to build greater influence. 

He uses a personality profile to increase self-awareness and identify weaknesses, such as lack of assertiveness or lack of confidence, that interfere with success. Insight should then lead to self-directed action.

He also emphasizes the value of understanding the psychological preferences of the people you are trying to influence and adapting your style in ways that mirror those people. While some find this approach disingenuous (because you're not being true to yourself), Cullingworth disagrees.

"It's not phony if you do it out of respect. When you give them what they need in the way they need it, they are far more likely to make a place for you on the leadership team."

Keltner's research shows that as leaders grow in power and influence, they often become disconnected from their followers and less empathetic to the needs and concerns of their constituents. HR can bridge that gap by becoming a liaison between senior leaders and the rest of the organization.

HR can help leaders identify toxic behaviors that may be negatively impacting morale and performance and work with them to develop appropriate resources in the form of training, executive coaching or perhaps EAP counseling.        

A compassionate, smart HR manager proved her relational merit during a confrontation between a vice president of communications and one of his direct reports. When the harried, lower-level communications professional unwittingly showed up for an important presentation for clients with lettuce in his teeth and his tie badly knotted, the vice president harshly criticized him and referred him to HR for disciplinary action.

The HR manager elected to use soft power persuasion rather than hard power threats to resolve the problem. First, she signed the communications staffer up for a stress management workshop. Then, she found a business etiquette coach to work with him on his professional image.   

Looking back on that embarrassing incident, he is grateful to the HR manager for treating him with kindness and compassion, the vice president calmed down after his employee's performance improved, and the HR manager earned kudos for saving the employee's reputation—and job.

Be a Culture Ambassador

When Nye first developed the soft power concept, he used it to describe the role of diplomacy in international relationships. Ambassadors (and other diplomats) are hired to represent their country's interests and values, something that CEOs also value in their HR leaders.

In Michael's CEO forums, the desire for HR to "be a culture champion" often shows up at the top of the CEO wish list.

"Most CEOs understand that culture is important," she said. "If HR leaders can provide the CEO with strategies and tools for changing the culture—and help them create a roadmap and ways to gauge the degree of culture change over time—it will be career gold for them."

It is HR's job to communicate a sense of shared values, goals and purpose, and to cultivate relationships that strengthen the culture. When HR is able to hire talented people who are likely to fit well into the culture and keep those people engaged in meaningful ways, they become central players in the evolution and maintenance of a high-performing workplace. 

Chip Luman, COO and co-founder of HireVue in South Jordan, Utah, believes that a strong culture is a key to organizational success. When the culture is strong, the company is less dependent on strict rules and procedures because leaders can trust everyone to do the right thing.

Culture is informed by shared values and beliefs (about what it takes to be successful) that the HireVue leader likes to refer to as "AttriVutes":

  • Act like an owner.
  • Customer obsession.
  • Lean towards action.
  • Accept the best ideas.
  • Get results.
  • Build on what works.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Think big.
  • Disagree and commit.
  • Hire the best and develop to be better. 

Luman sees it as HR's responsibility to bring in people who align with the company's current or desired culture. 

"While HR may not be able to singlehandedly change the culture, HR can have the ability to steer it in the right direction and cultivate an environment where everyone enjoys coming to work," he said.

This is the soft power imperative.

"Soft power uses an attraction to shared values, and the duty of contributing to achieve those values," Nye wrote. "It is through cooperation that people work together toward shared goals and outcomes."

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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