5 Ways to Incorporate HR Strategy in the C-Suite

Since leadership Talent is your Biggest Asset

The C-suite’s focus on business strategy has long been accused of focusing on profit over people. Yet, thanks to increased awareness and indeed appreciation of the benefits that strong people-centred policies and good HR focus can bring, a step change is taking place in business and more specifically within the C-suite itself. 

Reaching the upper echelons of C-level requires a vast range of experience, functional knowledge and finely-tuned leadership capability. The path to this level is far from easy and the route requires specialist know-how, technical skill and good people management, coupled with ever-critical sponsorship in order to traverse the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. For those that do this successfully, shared traits such as sound judgement in decision making, self-awareness and the cultivation of visionary perspectives needed to make impactful upper management decisions are found.

Once people reach the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals

For HR, the business partnership of the C-suite has evolved to both innovate and provide ‘true value creation’. The resulting incorporation of HR strategy in the C-suite can hold significant upside in the retention and development of C-suite members, in addition to providing a culture enriched trickle-down throughout the wider organisation and of course, positive financial implications on the bottom line.

#1 Culture in the C-Suite

The focus on corporate culture has ramped up to become far more than just a ‘buzz phrase’ or HR only interest to become one of the top priorities for leadership teams and HR partners alike. In 2019 we saw major shifts in how the workplace environment operates, with demands for greater flexibility and a renewed focus on emotional well being along with the creation of great employee experiences. 

However, the culture of the company is not something that only exists outside of the executive suite. In fact, the most successful and cohesive workplace cultures are led from the C-suite down and out throughout the wider company, whilst being modelled to the senior management, their directs and extended reporting structure. The C-suite’s capacity to lead culture by example goes on to set the tone, behavioural style, values and management approach. 

Just how the C-suite team go on to lead culture, is, of course, unique to the very companies they are charged with leading. Yet there are consistent themes in how not to engender a strong workplace culture, as shared by the Harvard Business Review, on the wrong ways to strengthen culture. In brief, the things to avoid are measuring culture with data alone – A sure-fire way to miss out on the qualitative impact that good culture can bring. The use of simple adjectives to describe culture, like ‘fun’ or ‘open’, which can sound and look good on paper, but can then be at odds with how the company culture operates in reality. And finally, neglecting to update company policies to reflect culture change. 

Compared with some other activities of business leaders, such as hiring the right talent and setting strategy, changing corporate culture can be especially challenging

This final point is particularly important where the C-suite team are defining the kind of culture they want the company to have. With sessions of this nature typically occurring at off-site, leadership away days, where the momentum and commitments made during the session can easily be forgotten once BAU (business as usual) has kicked back into gear. 

Culture must be designed, agreed on, documented, lived and breathed from the C-suite down in order to be truly effective.

#2 Talent retention and engagement of the C-suite

When you consider how challenging and expensive it can be to attract talent to the upper echelons of an organisation, with every C-level switch up typically the result of a significant company change or at worst, a period of turbulence, the criticality in retaining and engaging this hard-won talent is essential to optimising business success. 

C-suite churn can impact everything from company morale to shareholder confidence. As such it makes sense for business partners and HR leaders to focus attention on how to maintain engagement within the C-suite to ensure a good period of stability ahead of further changes taking place. Executive search firm Goodall Brazier reported that “31% of senior executives believe that employee retention and training of senior executives are the biggest talent management issues perceived in their industry.” A stat’ that will hold little surprise for the HR community. Therefore it’s imperative that a strong retention strategy is embraced by the C-suite and their respective HR partners. 

It is well documented that hiring for both skill and culture-fit results in a more productive and content workforce

HR and senior members working together to achieve clear leadership and cohesion are essential in having a strong retention plan. The C-suite is not immune to some of the more typical reasons for employee’s leaving, which can be the result of poor management. Senior leaders capabilities in the ‘people management’, of other senior leaders they’re charged with managing, must be readily supported by HR partners to ensure capability, emotional intelligence and coaching mindset levels are high.

Having a clear objective on the attraction and retention of the C-suite, aligned with the companies vision, values, goals and targets around what good retention periods look like for the company, supported by quality market and internal data will aid engagement and retention levels significantly.

#3 Leadership development of the C-suite

Executive-level development are amongst the most important factors in the long-term success of a company. Particularly when considering that it’s the responsibilities of the senior team that are the most demanding and have the greatest impact on company success. The University of St Gallen’s executive education report found that an alarming 84% of companies admitted they are still in their infancy when it comes to executive learning and development. Which when you consider that the research also found that 57% of executives viewed executive L&D as the highest priority for the company. The lack of maturity in this arena is all the more surprising. 

Today, top executives are facing unprecedented technological, competitive and political changes

The dangers in failing to establish a programme of L&D for senior stakeholders, range stagnation in innovation to a lack of focus on the soft skills required for effective leadership. The challenge for HR leaders is to attain C-level sponsorship for continuous development, whilst acquiring a steadfast budget. Constraints on resource and immediate term business focus can hold investment back, but there’s ample opportunity for HR to think outside the box. 

One way would be for HR to consider establishing a programme of development and learning opportunities that also deliver a high degree of social value in the development opportunities leveraged. It’s advantageous where budget constraints are a reality, to consider linking executive L&D programmes with corporate social responsibility initiatives. In doing so, success in the continual improvement of leadership teams, whilst doing something socially responsible can be achieved. 

An approach of this nature can include everything from partnering with non-profits to identify pro-bono leadership opportunities for C-level stakeholders to contribute to. Through to allocating resource that identifies partnerships where leaders can work on charitable projects by providing mentorship. These alternative types of L&D deliver results that go far beyond the traditional chalk & talk of costly training days and deliver a dual impact in achieving budget sensibility whilst also meeting CSR goals.

#4 C-Suite collaboration

HR’s role in engendering collaboration amongst teams and departments must also extend its focus to the C-suite. In fact, Deloitte one of the big 4 global consulting firms, has coined the term the ‘symphonic C-Suite’, which quite literally means the “act of senior leaders acting as a symphony of experts playing in harmony, rather than a cacophony of experts who sound great alone, but not together.”

Senior leaders can’t afford to work in silos in today’s complex, dynamic environment

The new collaborative, team-based executive model, seeks to bring together multiple functions, project teams, and resources who all need to work in harmony and collaborate together in order to achieve company success. And steps away from the previously siloed approach, which saw the CEO standing alone, making key decisions, whilst delegating out responsibilities to each of the respective C’s to own & lead within their area of functional expertise. Individual CxO’s, have not, as a rule, typically worked together collaboratively. However, in today’s business environment, which is ever more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, (VUCA), a level of agility coupled with combined decision making is now required. 

Taking any step to begin the transition is better than waiting – or worse, being paralyzed and burying one’s head in the sand

HR’s role in facilitating the shift to a more collaborative approach is key to success in this area. Particularly when considering the forward-looking implications bought about by the future of work and its shift to increased artificial intelligence. Digital business models, increasing brand protection and innovation which demand cross participation amongst CIO’s, CMO’s, CFO’s, CHRO’s and CEO’s respectively. 

The upside achieved by HR facilitating, driving and realising collaborative C-suite ranges all C-suite executives incorporating a teamwork approach in business strategy and real-time decision making. Along with individual C-suite members observing and enacting ways that they and their teams can collaborate across functions, silos and organisational boundaries.

#5 Set clear targets for gender balance in your C-suite team

The focus on achieving gender equality in leadership teams and within the C-suite should continue to be a top priority for both the C-suite and HR partners in 2020. Thanks in part to the shared on-going commitment by the UK government to achieve greater numbers of women on FTSE boards as reported in the Hampton-Alexander Review. And an increased focus by think tanks and research institutes like the Global Institute for Women’s leadership, shining a light on the work still needed to be done, in order to achieve gender balance across the political and business landscape. HR’s focus on helping to achieve increased levels of balance will need to traverse talent pipeline management, effective policy-making, retention strategy, succession planning and by establishing gender balance targets and goals. 

As reported in the penultimate Hampton-Alexander review published in November of 2019, women now hold board-level seats at 32.4% of FTSE 100 companies, 26.6% of FTSE 250 companies and 30.6% of FTSE 350 companies. Which despite being on track to achieve the 33% target set by the review for women to be on boards and in leadership teams of FTSE 350 companies by 2020. Is also a long way off the 50/50 split that would be more desirable for true gender-balanced leadership of businesses to become a reality. 

HR’s contribution to achieving greater gender balance in the C-suite can be made through the support of female talent throughout the whole talent lifecycle. Ranging the removal of barriers to leadership positions by implementing flexible and remote working practices. Which alone can impact retention levels of female talent, particularly following career gaps taken to start families or care for young children. In addition to reviewing and revising your companies sourcing strategy, ensuring effective advertising of roles to reach a diverse range of talent. Whilst also implementing a mentoring and sponsorship programme targeted to support female talent with their career development and visibility on route to more senior positions.

In summary

Successfully incorporating HR strategy in the C-suite can have transformative results, for the senior leaders themselves, their wider reporting lines and at all levels of the organisation. Making this task all the easier, are effective, easy to use and packed with features, HR software from the award-winning CakeHR. Supporting HR leaders with the effective management of the intricate details of human resources management. Which in turn Allows time & freedom for strategic HR matters like C-suite HR strategy to take priority – A fantastic upside all round.  

You can find out more about CakeHR and how our software solution can make a big difference to your organisation; book a demo’, speak with us or enjoy a free trial. 


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CakeHR is a one stop shop for your HR management needs. With attention to user experience & making the software easy to use yet packed with loads of features we strive to make your HR management as easy as a piece of cake!

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired Talent.co a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.