How HR Leaders Can Use Data and Insights to Influence the C-Suite
When it comes to people analytics, HR leaders know they need to get up to speed. According to an Oracle survey from 2021, less than 30% of HR professionals say they’re good or very good at making positive changes using people data. Yet HR is now a part of the C-suite in many organizations, and in most, the department officially has the attention of the executives and the boardroom.“I think CEOs intuitively know that you need to have somebody in the room who is focused on people,” said Courtney White, an HR leader at chemical company BASF. “At the same time, there has to be an appreciation for that intelligence in the room.”During From Day One’s August virtual conference on the changing profile of HR leaders, I moderated a discussion among four panelists titled “How HR Leaders Can Use Data and Insights to Influence the C-Suite.” The group agreed on this: HR has to learn to speak the C-suite’s language. That’s things like P&Ls, forecasts, budgets, skills, and efficiency. HR must learn the lingua franca of business.Given its newly expanded role in enterprise, HR is in a better position to do this now than in recent memory. Isobel Lincoln, the SVP of HR for the luxury retail and office developer Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, likes to invest time in learning other team’s goals. For example, the sales targets of the business development team. “HR can take a step back and look at things holistically and connect across different functions,” she said. White warned of HR’s tendency to focus on people to the neglect of business strategy. “We’ve got to balance some of the emotional intelligence with business intelligence too, because for most HR organizations, they’re non-revenue-generating.” But, he said, HR can learn to pitch the department as an investment, because it does generate a return.How? Rebecca Warren, the director of success for HR tech platform Eightfold, said do the math. If you don’t have the right numbers people on staff in the HR department—people analytics is still an emerging field—ask finance to help. “We can’t just show up at the table and say ‘I want to spend $500,000 on this tool because it’s going to do X.’ We don’t have anything to show, we don’t have a story. We’re not solving a problem,” she explained. The speakers, clockwise from upper left: moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Josh Merrill of Confirm, Rebecca Warren of Eightfold, Isobel LIncoln of URW, and Courtney White of BASF (Image by From Day One)For tools, processes, or programs you want to introduce, present them in terms of things like money or time saved, people hired, or even headaches removed. If hiring managers complain that candidates don’t move through the interview process quickly enough, pitch a new scheduling tool along with numbers predicting the results. Warren’s example was this: “Let’s just say we can shave off five days from that interview process, or even three. The cost will be 20 cents per candidate if we hire X number by the end of the year.”Executives also want to know the company is ready for tomorrow and the next day with the right skills in the workplace. This is another way HR is bound to make itself invaluable to the business, said Josh Merrill, the CEO of Confirm, which makes performance management software. Give business leaders a detailed picture of what their workforce is capable of, as Merrill recommended, by way of “organizational network analysis.” Rather than relying on self-reported skills analysis or manager-reported analysis—which, Merrill believes, can be too biased or too unreliable—ask workers whom they go to for help on specific tasks or topics. “If we were to ask the question, ‘Who do you go to for help and advice?’ We could very quickly see, for example, that 12 people go to [one employee] for help with copywriting.” This is how you identify skills the C-suite wants in the workforce now and in the future.HR’s Changing ReputationHR is now a much bigger part of business than it was just a few years ago. That’s an advantage, said Lincoln. “We’re not business owners, but I feel like we’re business brokers. We’re the one department that interacts with everybody, no matter what industry, company size, or location. That influence is really powerful.”But human resources hasn’t always had this reputation, and it still has some old ways it needs to shake off, said Warren. “[The department has] a responsibility to be visible inside the organization, not just as the ‘The Terminator,’ or ‘Oh, no, HR is coming,’ or ‘I’m going to tell HR.’ We need to become a trusted advisor. When we show up, we want people to say ‘They’re here because they’re going to listen, and they’re a partner with me.’”HR Is the Link Between the C-suite and the Company CultureAnother duty of the HR team is to liaise between the C-suite and the people. The C-suite may not be able to see the culture anymore, said White. “You’re the CEO of the organization, and you think you know what's going on, but do you really know? Are you still as relevant as you were when you were working on the shop floor, or when you were in the field? People tell you what they want you to hear versus what may be reality.”Merrill put it like this: “I think that the gap between HR and the C-suite is the story that we tell is not the experience that they’re living.”Warren encouraged HR leaders to become experts on what it’s like to be an employee in the business. “We can get really insulated and spend a lot of time inside our bubble, but we have to get uncomfortable, and we have to learn about things that maybe we don’t want to learn about, and we’ve got to pay attention to things that are happening—then bring those insights, data, and information back inside.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife, among others.