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Episode 19: What we have found to be the most difficult part of being an HR leader


In this episode of How People Work, Jordan and Jason dive into more of the research they conducted last year with HR professionals. This week, they discuss what HR leaders have expressed as being the most difficult part of their job — gaining executive support.

Jason and Jordan give an executives’ perspective on how HR can communicate the ROI of people programs effectively and obtain executive sponsorship, driving success for both the HR function and the organization as a whole.

Key ideas and highlights

  • The most difficult part of the HR function is gaining executive support.
  • Executive support is key to the success of the HR function at any organization.
  • HR leaders must understand how people programs fit into key business objectives and how to communicate the ROI effectively.

Word of the day

Yips - Jason wins again!


  • 0:00 Intro
  • 1:56 How the perception of HR’s greatest challenges differs from reality
  • 4:43 The disconnect between HR leaders and executives when communicating the value of people programs
  • 5:34 There’s just not enough authority being given to HR.
  • 6:24 How HR leaders can effectively command authority
  • 7:40 Sometimes the executive team doesn’t know what good looks like in terms of people programs
  • 10:51 HR must align with business objectives in order to gain executive support
  • 13:16 How to speak to executives about the ROI of people programs
  • 17:51 The value of people programs is more recognized by Millennials than any other generation
  • 22:08 Supportive executive teams are essential to HR’s success
  • 24:05 Why some of the best HR leaders come from the operating side of the business
  • 25:52 The benefits and culture at your company point directly to your values


Jordan (00:05):

How many hours and years of our lives do we spend on work? For nearly all of us, we spend 30 plus years and one third of our days in our vocation, more time perhaps than we spend at rest or at play. But this isn't a problem. Why? Because work is good. Work needs to be integrated deeply into our lives and must be in line with our most important goals and values. And if it is, we have a far more complete and fulfilling life experience. Welcome to the How People Work podcast, where we explore the intersection of how humans think and act and how they apply themselves to their work. When you understand both of these things, you'll be equipped to be insightful, compassionate, and compelling leaders.


Welcome back to How People Work. This is Jordan Peace. I'm here with my co-host Jason Murray, and we're excited to keep talking to you today about our own Fringe HR survey and interviews that we've done. We riffed, we realized Jason and I were just joking with each other about our last episode, we attempted to share with you the highlights of a 15 page document, and we got through about half of page six, not one through six. Just page six. Just page six. So we're going to go back to the top. It was awesome, but it was fun. And we're going to talk a little bit more about the evolution of the HR profession and a question that was posed in the survey and also that I posed right at the end of the episode, which is, what are the greatest challenges you face in your role? This is one of the questions that was posed to these 500 plus respondents. Jason, why don't you take it away around sort of what our curiosity was with that question and what were some of the results of that? And then how does that sort of tie that back into the evolution of the HR role?

Jason (01:56):

So one of the things we were trying to learn from this question was in part perception and in part reality. So what do people perceive to be the greatest challenges? And then what are some of the actual challenges? So some of the questions we ask later in the survey, we're trying to get to the bottom of what maybe some of those actual tensions are, but greatest challenges. There were two ways that we looked at this. So one was which responses out of about 10 that we gave to people were most frequently in the top five by sort of total quantity of selection.

Jordan (02:32):

I see. So these were ranked 1-10.

Jason (02:35):

They were rank order questions.

Jordan (02:36):

This is my greatest challenge and this is my 10th greatest.

Jason (02:39):

So we gave people 10 options and we said, rank your top five. I see. Okay. And so there's two ways we can look at this. One is, which questions most frequently were in the top five. And then we can also look at it from a standpoint of average position in the top five. Got it. And there were actually some different answers depending on how you look at that. So most frequently in the top five, number one was creating a positive and satisfying employee experience. The second was communicating the value of people programs to executives specifically. That's surprising. That's one that we could probably dig into a bit more. And then the third was tools and budget to support employee wellbeing. So primarily the availability of tools and budget to support employee wellbeing. So that was kind of rank order in terms of most frequently in the top five.


So in terms of total number of kind of selections when it appeared in top five, creating a positive and satisfying employee experience was number one. When it came to average position in the top five, there were some little bit of differences, but some overlap in terms of what those responses look like. So number one was aligning people programs with business objectives. Two was soliciting executive support for people programs. And three was support offering fair pay and benefit packages at industry benchmarks. So that one to me was, I don't want to say it was kind of a throwaway answer, but I sort of treat it that way because it's like, yeah, that's sort of HR’s, one of HR’s kind of baseline roles is like, Hey, are we at market in terms of the pay and benefits that we offer? It can be a challenge as we know to figure out what are other companies doing, how are they doing it? Is our pay leveled properly, et cetera, et cetera. And so that one is I think a more conventional part of the HR function in general. But some of the other ones I think are worth digging into. But interested in your responses.

Jordan (04:43):

And I think the first thing that jumps out to me is a couple of these are a little bit similar. That's not a criticism, but I think it's important to have similar questions to see who picks what. But the idea, so in your most frequent top five things that were placed in the top five most frequently, one of the things that jumps right off the page is to us, and you pointed it out, is communicating the value of people programs to executives. And then essentially the same thing in the average position side, which number two was soliciting executive support for people programs. So communicating the value in soliciting support. Kind of similar.

Jason (05:23):

Very similar. They're kind of different sides of the same coin. One is like, Hey, I'm trying to prove ROI, right? The other is I'm trying to garner support to maybe get budget and whatnot, to support this program.

Jordan (05:34):

But you assume that if I could communicate and show our ROI, I would get said support. Right? And I wonder if this answer aligning people programs to business objectives is really tied into the same thing. Because I wonder if it's the frustration of not being able to solicit that support. They're going, well, I, I'm not soliciting support because of something that's my fault. I'm not communicating well enough and I'm not aligning the programs with the business objectives. Because if I were, then the executives would say, oh, I see how the people programs lead to the bottom line, lead to the business objectives. So that all feels very grouped in together with the thing that we talk about all the time, which is there's just not enough authority given to HR people.

Jason (06:24):

And I think one of the things that I took away from interviews that we did is that HR people need to command the authority based on how they communicate and their command of the data that they could be responsible for. And so I think a lot of executives don't know. So we're going to have to segment probably based on company size with some of these. So I would say some of what we'll say is not universally true across all companies, but one of the things, for instance, that I asked, one of the HR professionals that I spoke with was like, well, hey, how do we manage that reality? And what they said was, well, in smaller companies in particular, you know, might have an executive who simply doesn't know what good looks like. So because they don't know what good looks like, they don't know what to ask, they don't have the right questions. It's on the HR person than to be the master who's in command because the CEO -

Jordan (07:27):

Yeah. Yeah.

Jason (07:29):

May not know exactly what to be looking at or paying attention to.

Jordan (07:33):

For those that are audio only. Jason just pointed to me when he said I did, sorry, CEOs who don't know.

Jason (07:38):

Was that an offensive gesture?

Jordan (07:40):

No, I think it was an accurate one. And we went out and we hired a very senior, very professional, very well put together person to be our Head of People, Cassandra. And we mentioned her two episodes in a row now - she actually hosted Bragworthy Culture several times - to do the job because yeah, I think to your point, especially in the areas of compensation, some of the onboarding and what contracts should look like, some of these things were just unfamiliar to me, unfamiliar to our entire executive team. None of us felt like experts on that at the time. And she's been incredible for that reason and for many other reasons that we're even uncovering in terms of her skillset now. But yeah, I mean, point being, that's exactly right. Sometimes the executive leadership doesn't really know what good looks like and they're very reliant on this person to make decisions, prove it out, take action.

Jason (08:43):

Well, and I think this is true of how you operate, I think you would agree, is you want people that you lead to tell you what you should pay attention to. And I think that's one of the challenges.

Jordan (08:58):

I expect them to know more about what they do than I do.

Jason (09:01):

Because you have the humility, I think, to hire people that are presumably experts in the field that we're hiring them to be responsible for.

Jordan (09:09):

Some of us have an easier time hiring people that are smarter than us than others. I'll leave it at that.

Jason (09:15):

I feel like that's a little jab here.

Jordan (09:18):

There was a little jab of myself there, but you know what you can do, what I'm getting at.

Jason (09:22):

So one of the takeaways we had with this was that working with executives in effectively communicating the ROI of people programs in relation to business needs specifically is really essential to the job. And so I don't want this to sound like a knock on HR professionals, but I think one of the things I've come to realize is people like Cassandra are more uncommon than they are common in the profession today. Yeah. Now I think it's moving in the right direction, but in terms of just sheer quantity of people in the HR profession, especially at smaller companies, it's less likely that you have somebody who has that kind of command over how do I talk to executives? How do I understand strategy? How do I understand data as it relates to people programs? I was literally speaking to a company just the other day about some partnership things that we might do creatively with them. And I kind of passingly said, yeah, you mean at a small companies, what happens is you just have an administrative person who gets promoted into an HR job with really no experience, and they're managing HR for a company.

Jordan (10:34):

And the thought is, oh, they're good at juggling a lot of things. They're good at details. They won't screw up the minutiae, just put 'em in this role, it'll be fine.

Jason (10:42):

And now they're managing HR for a company of a hundred, 150, 200 people, right? Yeah. And so again -

Jordan (10:50):

Without the proper training or experience.

Jason (10:51):

Experience, so it's not a knock, but one of the things I think is true that we learned from this is HR is often on this island out there away from the rest of the company. They struggle to get support from decision makers because they maybe don't always understand some of the business contingencies that are going on that are just really necessary in how decision making happens within an organization. And so for you and I that live on the operating side of the business all the time, we're always thinking about how much money do we have? How much money are we making? And it's not simply a profit-driven motive. It's like we got to pay people, we got to make sure the business operates. We got to make sure we're here a year from now.

Jordan (11:34):

In some ways, that's how we caretake the people that we have is we make sure we have a healthy company so that everybody can get paid.

Jason (11:41):

Exactly. But what we're not maybe always thinking about, I think you more so than I am, are thinking about these things by nature of your position is like, well, hey, what's happening with the people and what's the ROI and what's the sentiment and how is employee engagement tying into some of these things? And it's really, I think the burden of HR professionals now to be really savvy with that kind of data and how they communicate and how they surface it up to decision makers. And I think what really crystallized that for me is when I was doing the interviews in particular, there were actually a number of these HR leaders that we interviewed who spent some, or even most of their career on the operating side of the business first. They were VP of operations or even Chief Operating Officers and those kinds of things before they moved into the people function within the organization. And so their grasp of the business needs of an organization were very deep and very holistic.

Jordan (12:48):

So they know how to speak the language.

Jason (12:49):

So they could speak the language of somebody who kind of lives on the operating side, but they could also connect the dots more effectively between, Hey, you know, here's how something like employee wellbeing ties into something that's a critical business metric or a critical business need that we're trying to execute on. And I would say in general, the average HR person probably doesn't have that same grasp on the business needs especially.

Jordan (13:16):

Why don't you think about, let's say your business need is you need to keep your customers, and we're in a difficult economic period right now, for example. And we've been really fortunate, maybe because we're in the benefits world, maybe because we just have excellent people to do an excellent job, probably a combination of the two. But we've done a really nice job keeping our people. But if you would imagine if I'm an HR professional trying to explain to me, here's why we need to take care of our people in the midst of a recession. Here's why we need to prioritize them because they're the ones that talk to our customers, right? They're the ones that keep our customers, our customers. And there's only but so much faking it they can do before they just kind of phone it in. So they're either going to be kind of true believers in the mission and the vision and ascribe to the values and really want to serve our customers and want to treat them the way that we want to treat them.


And that's genuine. Or they're just going to fake it for a little while, fizzle out, phone it in, and then we're going to lose our customers. Connecting those dots together for an executive would just be enormous because an executive can fall into the trap of, and I feel like I'm knocking CFOs, I'm not really trying to do that, but you spend too much time in a spreadsheet, you forget that it's people that keep your customers and it's people that sell new customers, and it's people that build the product. And it's people that use their soft skills here, there in the other place to help the business thrive. And you're just like, well, I don't know. They're just - on the spreadsheet, there's just cost.

Jason (14:56):

And we've had that experience. I mean, dealing with investors and board meetings and things of that nature where you're putting together budgets or scenarios that things can look good on a spreadsheet, but how you actually implement that with real people is a totally different ballgame, right? Altogether. And so things don't always play out in real life the same way they do on a spreadsheet. For sure.

Jordan (15:20):

I think, and I'll let you take back over here in a second, but I think that you highlighted one problem, which sometimes the wrong people are placed into the HR position in small companies, and then those companies don't say, stay small. And then you've got folks that are actually gifted in other areas or simply not trained in a role they probably ought not be in. But I think probably more often than not, maybe you do have a really talented, really good HR person, but your, your CEO in particular is just not a true believer, so to speak.

Jason (15:53):

That goes back to what we talked about.

Jordan (15:54):

They just don’t believe that the people are the ones that make the business thrive and they're just like, oh, people are replaceable, whatever, we just take out a widget, put in a new widget, it'll be fine. And some of that stuff. And I, that's honestly, as I sit here and speak into the microphone, that's who I hope is listening. I hope it's people in my role that need to believe this. They need to get it because these poor HR folks, they might be the most talented people on the face of the earth and they might do all the right things and they just don't have their ear because they're not really willing to accept that their idea or their brilliance or their vision casting or whatever is not enough. That you need a whole bunch of really satisfied talented people that believe in your vision, but also believe that you give a shit in order to, did I just make this an E episode? In order to do the thing and to do it in an impassioned way that your clients are going to respond to? And that's, sorry, this is just what gets me riled up.

Jason (17:08):

Yeah, I mean, me too. It’s spot on.

Jordan (17:10):

If the CEO doesn't believe, none of it matters.

Jason (17:12):

Well, and that's what we talked about in the last episode is companies either get it or they don't. And I think that pertains to people who might be in the HR profession is like, you got to look at the leaders in the company that you work at, and you have to ask yourself, do they get it right or do they not? Because if they're on the sort of side of the philosophical divide that's like people are resources, then -

Jordan (17:36):

You need to find someone else to follow.

Jason (17:37):

It's going to be a rare case where you can convince that individual or team of individuals that there's another way.. But I do want to offer a little hope here according to our data.

Jordan (17:50):

Did I get too dark?

Jason (17:51):

No, no, no, no. I mean, I think it's spot on, right? Because I do think that there is a very clear old way that things have been done that is a bad way to do things, and that those companies will struggle and likely will not exist in the future. And that the faster companies get on board with a different way of thinking, the better. What's more likely to happen, I think, is that the more millennials in particular begin to start taking over and running companies, the more these things are just going to be intrinsically a part of what's done within those organizations.

Jordan (18:24):

Yeah, true. I mean, it's, some of it's just generational solves a lot of this.

Jason (18:29):

Well, and our data supports that. Surprising data, or maybe not surprisingly.

Jordan (18:34):

I'm too anecdotal and emotional. Give us some data, Jason.

Jason (18:37):

So according to the research that we did in the survey results, millennial HR professionals and specifically - so we segmented kind of all the respondents that came in. Millennial HR professionals were most likely to agree that investments in people programs are clearly linked to achieving specific business outcomes. And so my takeaway from that was that -

Jordan (19:00):

And that’s of millennials, gen Xers and Boomers, assuming you don't have Gen Zs in here.

Jason (19:06):

No, we do have Gen Z in here.

Jordan (19:07):

Okay. But that comparison you just made.

Jason (19:10):

So millennial in particular, although Millennial and Gen Z tend to align pretty closely and a lot of the things that we're talking about here. And so that kind of fits the native analog native digital paradigm that we've put forth before. So we believe this suggests that younger employees in particular are actually becoming more astute at thinking about people programs in light of business objectives and feeling that they have the support of executives and shaping those initiatives. And so I think there is a shift that is taking place within the HR profession that millennials and down in particular are feeling that they have a better grasp and understanding of what these things are that they're charged with and naturally then are becoming more astute and educated and equipped at how they communicate the value of those things to the executives and the people leading the companies that they work for.

Jordan (20:10):

What was another question that you asked besides, what are the greatest challenges you faced that you just learned a lot from the responses to? Is there one that would, another one that you would point to?

Jason (20:24):

I think one of the ones -

Jordan (20:28):

Or you can stay home with the same question. Cause I know you sliced the data a lot of ways, so that's totally fine.

Jason (20:33):

Well, I think one of the things that was interesting was people tended not to rank soliciting executive support highly in challenges that they face. So one thing that I thought was going to be true that turned out to be less true was that HR people would generally feel that getting executives to buy into supporting people programs that they're responsible for would rank really high.

Jordan (21:10):

Yeah. I would assume the same.

Jason (21:11):

Based on building the sales team and having lots of conversations with HR professionals, that seemed obvious to me, right?

Jordan (21:17):

Because like 99% of the time, the HR person is all in on fringe things is the coolest thing I've ever seen, but yet our close rate is not 99%. So there's a reason for that.

Jason (21:31):

And so it actually ranked eighth out of nine in terms of total selections, right? Yeah. How many times was it included in the top five? Eight out of nine, but I thought this was really interesting, is when it was included by participants in the top five responses, it consistently fell into the top three. So I think -

Jordan (21:56):

So when it’s a problem, it's a problem.

Jason (21:57):

Exactly. Right? So I mean, feel like now we're kind of beating a dead horse, right? Because it's companies that get it, get it. And the ones that don’t, don’t.

Jordan (22:05):

It’s a horse that needs to be beaten, for lack of a better expression.

Jason (22:08):

I think what this data says is that while many teams do feel there is some support, there can be a lot of variance in the leadership styles from company to company that impact this. And so while people generally feel supported, when they don't, they really don't feel supported. And so I think that's the divide, right? I've got a supportive executive team, or I don't have a supportive executive team. End of story. I think that's a really clear dividing line of what we saw in the data.

Jordan (22:46):

Yeah. And you actually have obviously a ton more sales experience within selling Fringe in particular and having all of these sort of consultative relationships with different HR people and so forth. But it's been clear from the beginning, and that's why you use a phrase, get it, don't get it. Because it doesn't take more than 10 minutes with an HR person to see. And you can see it in their face and their countenance and their language and what questions they ask, whether they're coming from a place of, I have executive support and I'm just here to figure out the best solution for the thing that I'm already supported in. Or I'm desperately looking for something that I think is interesting, and please, God, help me sell this to my executive. Because they're not in.

Jason (23:33):

And most people won’t. I think because they think about their own career and they think about the risk they might be taking. And a lot of times it's like, I'll play it safe. Status quo is safer. And that's human nature. And I mean, I don't fault people too much for that.

Jordan (23:52):

Too much.

Jason (23:52):

Too much. Yeah. Well,

Jordan (23:53):

You do value courage.

Jason (23:55):

Right. Well, I do value courage, I think the thing that I'd say is I always go up the chain and you say, Hey, who's really responsible? It’s the leader.

Jordan (24:04):

Who's really at fault here.

Jason (24:05):

And the buck stops with the leaders who are running the organizations. And so I do want to come back real quick to this notion though, that the most thoughtful of the leaders we interviewed were the ones that had spent notable time on the operating side of the business. They had such a clear understanding. It is fascinating of the value that they bring to the organization. And so I think for them, the compelling story really is if you invest in your people, you'll win. And that was really confirming to me, because I think that's something that we've talked about a lot, is like, Hey, invest in your people. You're going to win. It's a competitive landscape. Companies are literally competing for talent. It's been called a war for talent. It's true. Even today in an economic -

Jordan (24:49):

You should clarify that you don't necessarily mean that every job title in your organization needs to have the highest salary in the company. That's not in the country. That's not what you mean by invest, right?

Jason (25:00):

Right. In financial and non-financial ways. I mean, there is a bottom line aspect to it.

Jordan (25:10):

Yes, financials matter.

Jason (25:12):

But I would say that the piece that's been missing too is, and this is what we're talking about too with people in the HR profession, being able to communicate the value of the ROI. Like the way in which a return on investment looks when you're investing it into your employees is not as quantifiable in the same way as like, Hey, we acquired a new customer and that new customer generates X revenue. Right? We're talking about things like retention. What's the value of having better retention? What's the value of filling roles that you have open faster? What's the value of retaining customers?

Jordan (25:48):

Value of happy employees that are four times more productive, like we talked about?

Jason (25:52):

Exactly. Right. All of those things. But I think good HR people can start to lay out a framework to communicate those things. So I think we believe, and I hope our listeners come around to this too, that top talent comes in and stays because you care for 'em. I mean, I think that's just true. Your benefits and culture that you have at an organization are a huge signal at that point to your values. And HR teams are literally the center of driving those kinds of initiatives. So the efficacy of what you're doing when it comes to benefits and culture, who's responsible for that? It's the HR team. And I'd say that from our point of view, not just from a point of view, I think this is supported by data research and all sorts of things, is that having good benefits, having great culture, all of these things are really not just nice to have. They're imperative to having a successful organization that's going to attract top talent and people that are going to come in and want to stay at your organization.

Jordan (27:01):

Absolutely. Where do you want to take us next week? Jason? We probably should wrap up relatively soon here, but in this document and all this research that you've done, I, I'm thoroughly enjoying going through this. I've read this, but to stop and slow down and discuss it and hear you talk about some of the motivations behind each and every question is super interesting. So maybe talk about where you want to go next, and of course, share the word of the day with us and we'll wrap up.

Jason (27:29):

Yep, of course. So there's a whole bunch of ways I think we can go. So some of it, I'd say we'll see where we end up with some of this as you usual.

Jordan (27:38):

We like the freeform style.

Jason (27:40):

But that being said, I think there's just some interesting dynamics that relate to Fringe in particular with this whole kind of landscape of just a vast multitude of HR tools. So just when you talk about what's at the disposal of an HR person today to help make their job both easier and more effective when it comes to delivering a positive and satisfying employee experience. 20 years ago, there weren't a lot of tools. Now there's literally thousands of technology tools. And so that's one of the things we think a lot about at Fringe. And one of the things that's actually really top of mind in my role at Fringe is like, Hey, how do we help consolidate the landscape here? Because there's just a lot going on in that space that can be really overwhelming. So that's one of the things. I think there's some -

Jordan (28:31):

It's hard enough to have to pitch an executive once or twice a year, but if you've got to add 40 tools to get 40 jobs done, it's all overwhelming.

Jason (28:44):

Some other things around just like how do HR professionals work with data? What are some more effective ways to maybe think about that and reframe it? Are there things beyond attract and retain that are metrics that we ought to be thinking about? It's the topic we've discussed before. Yeah, sure. Mindset shifts and some things that tie into articles and research that we've referenced from third parties prior to this that I think we'll bring into the conversation. So yeah. Cool. There's a whole bunch stuff back.

Jordan (29:15):

Sounds ike three or four or five more episodes. Yeah. Yeah. So do you have a word of the day lined up?Of course. Yeah.

Jason (29:22):

Yep. So the word of day for the next episode. Obstinate.

Jordan (29:26):

Obstinate. Obstinate. That's fun. I'll just tell you a story about my daughter. It'll be great. Been an easy one. Well, thank you guys again for listening to how people work. It's really a joy to record this podcast. Thank you, Jason. You make it easy kind of getting us prepared every week and having good show notes and everything. So thank you for listening, and we'll catch you obstinate listeners next week. All right. That doesn't count. That doesn't count. I got to say it next week. Bye-Bye.

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