By: Ber Leary on October 13th, 2020

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How HR Leaders Can Build Trust in the C-Suite

Business Management & Strategy | COVID-19

Right now, all over the world, CEOs are sitting with their most trusted leaders to draw up a post-Covid recovery strategy.

HR plays a vital role in this conversation. There are so many human capital issues to discuss, like training and support for employees, facilitating the move to remote, and the unfortunate need for some firms to restructure.

And yet, HR isn’t always at the table. Often, the senior leadership make strategic decisions and leave HR to figure out the logistics. So, how can HR ensure that they have a voice in these crucial discussions?

In a word: trust.

Why trust is so important in the boardroom

In a professional sense, trust means having confidence that someone will consistently help you and support you. To trust someone is to see them as a true business partner.

When you take a close look at the anatomy of trust, you see it breaks down into three variants:

  • Competence: Are you skilled and informed enough to discuss this topic at the highest level? Do you have data to support your opinions?
  • Integrity: Will you speak truth to power even if it’s not what your boss wants to hear, or if it reflects poorly on your department? Will you put the company’s interests ahead of your own?
  • Agenda focus: Are you engaged with the company’s strategic goals? Do you understand the needs of other stakeholders, such as clients, investors, and department heads?
Most of us apply these criteria when deciding who to trust and who to keep at arm’s length. When you’re trying to develop your relationship with senior leadership, they apply these criteria to you. 

How to build trust at the highest level

Trust is something you earn over time, through your actions, your words, and the way you interact with others. Basically, you have to show up every day and prove yourself to be trustworthy. There are a few things you can do to help establish a trust-based relationship with seniors leaders, including the CEO.
Give trust to others
Trust is a reciprocal thing. If you want people to have confidence in you, you should start by trusting them. Everyone in your firm is pulling in the same direction, striving for the same goals, and worried about the same obstacles. There’s no need to obfuscate or manipulate. You’re a team.

If you want to actively display trust in others, try to engage them in discussions where you listen with curiosity rather than judgment. Share any information that you feel might help them achieve their goals. Be on the lookout for opportunities to collaborate and make the most of their skills.
Practice intimacy
We’ve talked about trust as a business function, but of course, it’s also about personal relationships. CEOS are like everyone else, in that they’re more likely to confide in someone with whom they connect.

Intimacy is often a matter of sharing the emotions you feel, which might be hope, excitement, uncertainty, or worry. Sometimes, it may feel like a risk to be so vulnerable, but if you can explain where you’re coming from, you’ll build a connection. For example, you might say, “I’m excited about remote working because we can expand our candidate search.” Or “I’m worried about remote working because I know some staff aren’t comfortable with the technology involved.”

Equally, it’s good to acknowledge the emotions that other people show. In stressful times, this may include negative emotions like frustration or anxiety. You can develop intimacy simply by saying, “I see where you’re coming from.”
Ask difficult questions (and listen to the answers)
To build a trusting relationship with people, you need to learn more about them. This means asking questions that might lead to difficult conversations or even open you up to negative feedback.
  • Try asking questions like:
  • What would you like to know?
  • What do you think?
  • What is this costing you?
  • What are the consequences?
  • How does this further our mission and goals? 
If these lessons lead to any conflict or disagreement, don’t back away from it. Take the opportunity to work together on the issues causing conflict. This will improve collaboration and ultimately deepen the sense of trust.
Speak clearly (and follow through)
Trust ultimately comes down to two things: what you say and what you do. If you show yourself to be consistent, competent and focused, you’ll win a high level of trust.

When you’re initiating a conversation with the CEO or a senior leader, follow these steps:
  1. Ask yourself if this is an issue worth discussing, and if you’re speaking to the right person.
  2. Contextualize the issue in a way that makes sense to them, covering both the technical and emotional aspects.
  3. Listen to their response in a way that makes them feel heard.
  4. Agree on a shared vision of the desired outcome.
  5. Clarify what you will do to achieve this outcome. 
Finally, and most importantly, make sure that you do what you said you would. Nothing spoils trust faster than an unfulfilled promise.
Show appreciation
Everyone likes a little recognition, even the CEO. When you collaborate with anyone, it’s always a good idea to take a moment to thank them for their time and their contribution.

Senior leaders also need to know everything that’s happening in the organization, so be sure to let them know how they’ve helped you and your department. For example, you might send an email that says, “Thank you for your support on the e-learning project. Staff are showing a high level of engagement with the new tools, and we expect to reduce our overall training budget by 20% next year.”
Building trust with an outside partner
For companies that rely on an HR partner, things work slightly differently. You still benefit from a trusted HR voice in the room who can help you understand the most prominent human capital issues, such as reskilling, restructuring, and supporting remote working.

How do you find a consultant that you can trust? There are a few things to consider:
  • Strategic goals: Do they understand your company’s vision?
  • Current strengths and weaknesses: Have they a good grasp of your current position?
  • Potential obstacles: Do they know the challenges you need to overcome?
  • Changing needs: Have they shown that they can anticipate your evolving requirements?
If you find a partner who understands your company, you can trust them to help you develop a people strategy for the challenges ahead.