The Brave Way to Manage the Boss

Giving smart advice to the CEO requires “skill and will.” Insights from Korn Ferry’s exclusive CHRO panel.

Gap Inc. didn't have any clothing manufactured in a Bangladeshi factory that collapsed in 2013 and killed more than 1,100. But Eva Sage-Gavin, then the firm's chief human resources officer, knew there were going to be some difficult conversations with the company's CEO and top leadership.  She knew that telling the unvarnished truth would be tough to hear, but it was critical to follow the company's values to “do what's right.” “As a CHRO you are often faced with the challenge of how do you get people to go where they don't want or don't know how to go" Sage-Gavin says.

Welcome to the world of high-level HR, where a pivotal role is often coaching the CEO and telling him or her things that no one else will. At an exclusive Korn Ferry panel, hosts Steve Safier, Senior Client Partner in Leadership Development and the Global Human Resources Center of Excellence, and Ron Porter, Senior Client Partner in the Global Human Resource Center of Excellence, brought together three leading HR executives with decades of C-suite expertise at companies as diverse as Movado Group and Mitsubishi International. Each described different behind-closed-door experiences but with one common theme: Be brave.

“CHROs have challenges that others just don’t have,” said Safier, in a comment that was quickly echoed by one of the panels, Michael Peel, who was the top HR executive at General Mills for 17 years and, before that, an executive at PepsiCo. As Peel put it, you have to be “the architects of truth.”

Ian Moore, another panelist, served as the top HR executive at News Corp. for 10 years, putting him next to one of the world’s most widely-followed CEOs, Rupert Murdoch. He relayed one awkward moment of going against his boss’s own family’s advice in suggesting two division heads. “He thought about it with an unhappy face,” Moore recalled, but “to his credit” Murdoch took the more difficult path. “You may not get agreement but you need understanding,” Moore said.

Advising the boss is difficult when the company, your career, and the careers of others are on the line, said Safier. Traditionally, being the boss’s sounding board wasn’t in the CHRO’s job description, either. But many companies are starting to view HR as a strategic part of the company and not just the department that hires people and picks the benefits plan. With that transition, more CHROs are being expected to be the CEO’s impartial source of critical information, said Porter.

But being the coach is difficult, requiring “will and skill,” said Peel, now vice president of HR at Yale University. One of those critical skills is empathy. All the panelists agreed that HR executives must get to know the background, culture, and perspective of the person who’s going to get coached. Another must: Know the business (“otherwise you won’t get acceptance,” Moore said).  And make sure the first time you deliver feedback isn’t when there’s a crisis. Indeed, the panelists said that being able to tell the boss good news enhances your credibility when there’s a tough bit of information to convey later.

But, above all, it takes courage to coach the boss. Sage-Gavin, who served 11 years at Gap Inc. and now is a member of the board of directors at BroadSoft, said her experience with the Bangladeshi tragedy was one of the most challenging of her career. But it was a catalyst for the corporation and other leading retailers to make changes in their respective supply chains and, more broadly, helped improved safety conditions of workers in Bangladesh. CHROs can’t have that impact, she said, unless they stand firm. “You have to have the courage of conviction or you won’t achieve the tough changes that are sometimes needed.”