There Has Never Been a Better Time as an HR Leader to Win the Trust of the CEO, ELT and Board.

Alex KaarTeam member Chris Karagounis There Has Never Been a Better Time as an HR Leader to Win the Trust of the CEO, ELT and Board.
Chris K

There Has Never Been a Better Time as an HR Leader to Win the Trust of the CEO, ELT and Board.


Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to a variety of People and Culture Leaders regarding how their businesses have reacted to the global pandemic. Nobody has a “playbook” for such an unprecedented event, so they all had to think on their feet and, to their credit, most have done an incredible job adapting their businesses to the “new normal”.  Their responses ranged from “We’re just trying to survive”, to “We’re growing and we’re thriving!”.


So what separates the “Thrivers” from the “Survivors”?


Working from home has proven challenging, but technology and logistical hurdles aside, facilitating the shift from office to home-based working wasn’t the deciding factor between the two.  It came down to who had demonstrated the true value of the HR function and who had earnt the trust of the CEO, executive team and the board.


HR leaders who struggle during times of crisis are often hampered by a CEO or board who are in panic mode. They follow the typical course of: Crisis = Reduce Costs = Job Cuts.  Understandable, given it’s the quickest way to improve the bottom line while the top line dwindles.  Some HR leaders, despite their best efforts to point out that the crisis, while serious, is temporary and may not warrant immediate radical staff changes, found that their advice fell on deaf ears.  Similarly, they also said that the CEO viewed HR as a mostly administrative function…. important, but not pivotal to the future of the organisation.  Some experienced this indirectly, others had this spelt out to them in no uncertain terms.


The HR leaders who were managing the crisis well had already established themselves as drivers of change and had undertaken years of heavy lifting in order to win the trust of the CEO and prove the value of their discipline.  Some had inherited a function that was already in good standing, so they had a slightly easier run, however as we all know, trust is hard to win and easy to lose, so they too had to fight to keep their seat at the table.


HR Relationships Are Forged by Fire During a Time of Crisis


Don’t waste this window!  Your CEO, no matter how stoic they appear to be, I assure you… they need you now, more than ever.  The further you progress in an organisation, the lonelier it gets.  It takes a brave person to reach out for help.  Many senior leaders don’t want to appear weak or as though they’ve lost control.  Look for the signs. Has your CEO lost their composure?  Has their behavior changed? Are they more emotive than normal? Are they lashing out? Are they retreating?  Here are a few ways you can show support, add value, enhance the impact of the HR function and build advocacy and trust during a time of crisis:


Be More Visible


There has never been a more important time to connect people. As the leader of the People and Culture function, it’s up to you to be the conduit who brings people together.   Most organisations have implemented group video conferencing via Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams or similar, as part of their regular work in progress.  That’s the basic level of interaction I’d expect and it’s what employees have come to expect during this time.  You need to challenge yourself and ask – What more can I do to connect the people within my organisation in a meaningful way? I’ve found that some of the basic forms of communication, work incredibly well.  I’ve been on walking meetings with my senior leadership team and many of the firm’s clients and I’ve found them to be highly productive, enjoyable and beneficial for everyone’s mental health.


You need to be “seen” by people in the business, at all levels.  Now is the time for you to reach out to the people you may not have had a lot to do with in the past.  I guarantee you, that by making that call, or organising a meeting or virtual catch up, you will not only create an immediate impact for the person you are conversing with, but they will go on to tell their internal networks that you are going above and beyond to make connections during a time when people need to feel more supported than ever.  The little gestures make a massive difference, because not many people take the time to do them.


Be Proactive, Provide Clarity and Manage Performance


Sometimes organisations and people are so caught up in the emotion and drama of a situation, they struggle to find clarity.  HR professionals need to be the leading voice when it comes to anticipating what a business needs to undertake from a “people” perspective and identify the opportunities and issues the business will need to navigate.  Then, they must prioritise those issues, ensuring the most important opportunities are identified and actioned.  This will be challenging, particularly if the issue you are trying to promote flies in the face of short-term thinking.  For example, convincing a business to hire a key role, when the logic says to cut roles will be a defining moment in your career.   It’s easy to “tow the line” and follow “popular opinion”, but it takes horizon thinking and true composure to go against the conservative weight. If the point you are trying to push is something you firmly believe in for the long term, and if you maintain your resolve, present a data and fact based argument and continue to use your influencing skills. Then the upside of these actions will pay dividends when business conditions improve and the economy rebounds.

As a result, your clear thinking in a time of crisis will not be forgotten and your influence with the CEO and board will remain.


Times of economic crisis mean that performance needs to be managed more closely than ever before.  This crisis is unique in the fact that it’s dispersed the workforce and we are forced to manage our people remotely.  What are you doing to ensure that performance is being maintained or, better still, improved?


Innovate and Be Creative


The GFC was a prolonged financial pandemic, with seemingly no way out.  However, those of us who had jobs were all working together in the office.  There was a sense of comradery and, while times were tough, there was also a feeling of connectedness and relative “normality”, which we don’t have this time around.  Our entire ecosystem has been interrupted and to face this challenge, we need to take this opportunity to reinvent.


I strongly recommend tapping into the collective brain power of your organisation to develop better ways of working.   There has never been a better time to review your operating model and look at what’s working well or what can be improved.  What work habits are going to continue, long after the pandemic has passed?  You also need to be brave enough to try new things, make suggestions, give something a go.  Listen to the feedback and if the idea doesn’t work, cut it and try something else.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are limited to just minor process improvements around business operations.  Be bold and think on a larger scale and a broader timeline – New business lines, new products, new customers. See and be the future of your industry.


Encouraging creativity within a business is like turning on a tap.  It only takes one person to be a catalyst and to champion creative thinking and suddenly, there’s a deluge of ideas.  Your people want to share their collective knowledge and it’s your role to bring them together to do this.  However… this comes with a warning.  Once you start, you can’t turn the tap off, so work out how you are going to manage this early on, or you run the risk of making your people feel as though it’s merely a token gesture.


Final Thoughts:  It’s easy to fall into a “let’s get through it by just getting by” routine.  Use this as a time to recalibrate how you work and set the direction for how your business will look in the future.


Your best relationships will be forged when the business is hurting.  Don’t waste this opportunity. Step up and stand out.  Muhammad Ali was once asked – “How many sit ups can you do?”  He responded “I don’t know….I only start counting, once it starts hurting, because they are the only ones that count.”

For more of Chris Karagounis’ Leadership insights:

Chris Karagounis

Chris is the Managing Partner of Alex Kaar Australia. Chris was a member of the founding private equity group that established the firm in 2004 and has been an active executive search consultant for over 20 years.

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