I once said that the HR director was the only person who could metaphorically say to the CEO, “Don’t wear that, it makes your bum look big.”
Some people took it literally, and I think that says more about them than it does about me.
The thing is this. Your best friend is someone who will tell you the hardest, most difficult things in a caring and supportive way. They’re the ones who will tell you the truths you need to hear when others sugarcoat them to the extent that the message gets lost.
It’s lonely being a CEO. They don’t have many people around that they can confide in and who will listen to their concerns, worries, thoughts and ideas without using them to get political advantage. The CFO? They’re after the CEO’s job, so that’s a no go-er. The CHRO? Well, they’re better positioned than any other executive in the organization. They are never going to be CEO and they have the skills and experience in listening and giving feedback.
To do this, though, you need to think bigger than HR. Much bigger.
To be the CEO’s best friend, you need to understand not only the financial and operational aspects of your business well enough to place context on the conversations, but also the industry and market that you operate in. You need to read and research industry news.
You also need to be willing to challenge. This isn’t a popularity contest and there is no prize for being the most sycophantic. But that doesn’t mean that this is all about you. You’ll get asked your opinion soon enough, but first you need to ask questions, listen, learn and be willing to challenge when you think you need to.
Finally, you need to be 100 percent confidential and trustworthy.
Now I know that HR people will immediately say, “That’s what we do,” but I’ve also worked in HR enough to know that it isn’t true. Sure, I’ve indulged in gossip myself. But if you’re going to truly play this role, if you really want to step up to this particular place then you absolutely cannot use it as a source of informal power. Your best friend gives you unconditional support; they put up with your moods and don’t sulk when you’re stressed and lose your temper. They let you show your vulnerability without taking advantage and they help you get your head together and feel better about yourself and your life. They’re there for you whenever you need.
HR can absolutely be the CEO’s best friend. In fact, I’d say it’s the only function that can.
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