HR Leadership Column Trust Matters

What should an HR executive do when their CEO or another top executive relies heavily on a close friend and colleague who may be giving out ill-advised or misplaced advice? As with many situations at the executive level, context matters.


Monday, July 31, 2017
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I hate walking on the treadmill. It's just boring. So lately, I've been plugging in and multi-tasking by binge-watching TV shows and binge-listening to podcasts to improve the experience while I trudge away. In fact, I'm perversely proud of having watched the entire first six seasons of HBO's "Game of Thrones" on the treadmill, just so I could catch up on what my sons were raving about.

My latest indulgence has been Malcolm Gladwell's "Revisionist History" podcast. So far, all have been well done and thought provoking. But one in particular led me to reflect on its implications in the corporate world.

In the episode titled "The Prime Minister and the Prof," Gladwell describes the deep friendship that existed between Winston Churchill and a brilliant physicist named Frederick Lindemann, the Viscount Cherwell. When Churchill became prime minister, he appointed his friend Lindemann as the British government's leading scientific adviser and put him on the War Cabinet. He had almost daily contact with Churchill throughout the war.

They were close friends, and Churchill relied heavily on Lindemann, even in those instances when Lindemann provided his opinion on matters outside of his expertise. As Gladwell recounts, one of these areas was on strategic bombing of enemy targets during World War II.

At the time, some believed that bombing should be focused on military activities such as protecting military ships and targeting enemy factories. Others believed that bombing should be used to make the lives of the adversary miserable. Churchill asked for Lindemann's analysis, and Lindemann, using faulty data, calculated that the effects of sending massive bomber forces to bomb German cities would break the spirit of the German people.

Churchill relied on his friend and followed his recommendation.

Gladwell notes that today, most historians agree that this bombing strategy was a disaster. Hundreds of thousands were killed while many cities were destroyed. Yet there was no break in the morale of the German people -- Germany fought to the bitter end.

Gladwell questions why we don't spend more time thinking about the friends of our political candidates, since we don't just elect a candidate to office, but indirectly also elect their friends. After all, elected officials will most likely turn to their closest friends for advice and counsel in times of turmoil.

But doesn't this notion apply as well to CEOs and top executives of our organizations? How often have you seen a top executive join an organization and then bring in his or her friends -- people that individual trusts -- who may not be qualified for the job at hand?

What should an HR executive do when a CEO or another top executive trusts and relies on a close friend and colleague, even when that HR leader believes the trust and reliance is ill-advised or misplaced? Or what should an HR executive do when he or she sees that other executives are fearful of challenging a colleague because of his or her close friendship with the CEO, with the result being that issues may not be fully debated and discussed?

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I don't think there's a simple answer to such dilemmas. As with many situations at the executive level, context matters. What's the organization, what's the emotional intelligence of the people involved and what's the tolerance for challenge and change?

But I think that first and foremost, HR executives needs to have gained the respect of their CEO and other executives, so that they'll really be heard if you need to point out the issue. Hopefully, one of the reasons that they've gained the confidence of peers and your CEO is because they know the business and what drives profitability. After all, how likely is it that they'll be able to make an accurate assessment of the value of advice being provided by the CEO's friend and confidant if they don't have -- and aren't recognized as having -- a deep understanding of the business?

Most importantly, I think, it's central that HR executives lead the way in designing organizational structures and compensation systems that drive a culture that accepts dissent and encourages debate on critical business decisions. While they may not be able to keep a friend from having the ear of the CEO or executive, they can work to ensure that others who need to be heard are heard as well.

And what if the HR executive is a friend and confidant of the CEO? They should be grateful, but also careful. They must not abuse that trust by keeping other executives from being heard when they need to be heard.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.



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