A promising place to start in building strong CEO and HR relationships is by prioritizing and collaborating on manager development (Photo by Fizkes/iStock by Getty Images)

It’s safe to say that the past year has expanded the role of HR–and probably in an enduring way. The onset of the pandemic, the abrupt shift to remote work, and the social-justice movement all brought human resources front and center. Among other things, companies had to face an issue–employee well-being–that could simply not be ignored.

With HR breaking out of its departmental silo, the situation has presented an opportunity for HR leaders and top management, particularly CEOs, to align in creating a people strategy that’s more intentional. It’s a prospect that the cofounders of Emplify–a company that helps leaders measure, diagnose, and solve their employee-engagement challenges–had already taken advantage of, ultimately finding that such an alignment is beneficial to the bottom line.

In a From Day One webinar moderated by Lydia Dishman, a contributing editor for Fast Company, Emplify CEO Santiago Jaramillo and Chief People Officer Adam Weber made a persuasive argument about why HR should be closely coordinated with the business decisions made by top leadership–and then outlined steps that companies can take to strengthen this relationship.

“A trap sometimes for CEOs is that they only hear the positive things for a sustained period because of their role,” Weber said. “What can cause tension is that HR often knows the truth that the CEO may not be aware of. So how do you create environments where the CEO is willing to name their own blind spots?”

Inviting HR leaders into the C-suite can be the first step. “CEOs can invite and give context about the business and what it means, and HR leaders can make business cases that tie the solutions to problems they so clearly see and feel to how it will help people and help the organization as well,” Jaramillo said.

The speakers, clockwise from top right: Emplify's Adam Weber and Santiago Jaramillo, and moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company (Image by From Day One)

Expectations of leadership and company values are changing, but many in the C-Suite have not caught up, Weber and Jaramillo assert. They believe a promising place to start in building strong HR and CEO relationships is by prioritizing and collaborating on manager development. “It can be that shared ground that CEOs can have with HR,” Jaramillo said.

“HR plays a super-important role in the organization, but after initial onboarding, it’s the manager that has the overwhelming influence on employees,” Jaramillo added. Managers keep employees engaged, which has significant impact on a company’s financial performance.

So what does it look like for the CEO and HR leader to collaborate on manager development? Data and surveys are a start, but there needs to be collaboration to prompt larger, company-wide change, the Emplify leaders say.

Jaramillo shared best practices over three steps. The first is to gather important context through engagement data. The most accurate way to make these assessments, he added, is through anonymous surveys that employees know is confidential, ideally carried out by a third-party provider. “Your data is only good as the questions you ask and how safe people feel being honest,” he said.

Measuring engagement, Jaramillo and Weber stressed, is different from measuring satisfaction. Satisfaction often relies on the status quo, while engagement digs into employee goals, the impact they desire. “It’s about measuring the heart-and-mind sentiment employees have for their work,” Jaramillo said.

After a company has harnessed true employee engagement to understand their strengths, weaknesses and challenges, CEOs and HR leaders should align around their priorities to create a focused strategy. “When that [alignment] happens, 80% of the battle is won,” Jaramillo said. “Now it’s about simply executing and making improvements around that area.”

The final step, according to Jaramillo, is developing a personalized development path for each manager. Some managers might need coaching, for example, or resources for remote-management skills. “Human behavioral change happens best with a coach,” he stressed.

Beyond focusing on manager development, alignment between CEOs and HR leaders can have a positive impact on company culture. To a large degree, the complementary management roles of Jaramillo and Weber serve as an example of that kind of relationship. Said Weber, author of the new book Lead Like a Human: Practical Steps to Building Highly Engaged Teams: “I’ve been a bit of the cultural heartbeat, making sure our people are cared for and that the atmosphere of our company feels a certain way, and Santi represents the practical and strategic needs of the business and the pace and urgency needed to achieve goals.” He characterized it as a “head/heart combo.”

Jaramillo, for his part, outlined what makes Weber a strategic HR leader: He balances mission, business and people, as well as being data-driven, which Jaramillo calls “the language of the C-suite." Weber focuses on engagement, training and development (as opposed to just hiring and firing), and partners closely with Jaramillo in regard to company well-being.

The pair know firsthand the benefits of alignment and how it improves the development of other employees. “It works, when done well,” Jaramillo said. “It’s an amazing opportunity and the time is now to align around this.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Emplify. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.