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Have you ever had your CEO curse at you? If you have a rocky relationship with them, you may not know what to do. When it happened to me, it highlighted and reminded me, as Chief People Officer (CPO), I need to do everything in my power to ensure myself and the CEO understand each other to work cohesively.
During my first 30 days as the CPO at a previous company, my new CEO suddenly dropped a curse word in the middle of a business call. When he expressed embarrassment, I told him what I now say to every CEO I work with: I want you to be authentically you, no matter if that is the type of person who curses like a sailor or would never dare to say a curse word. I want you to be authentic as soon as possible — if we feel we have to walk on eggshells around the other person, it will be much more challenging to get through the work at hand.
Just like our with significant others, family and friends, a positive working relationship between the CEO and CPO is not created out of thin air. We must put in the effort if we want to create synergy with our CEO that could match the partnership of Han and Leia. Here are a few tips you can use to create that synergy:
Related: The Importance of the Partnership Between CEOs, CIOs and CTOs
Get comfortable quickly
The beginning of a CEO/CPO relationship is not unlike the process of speed dating. And while I can’t say I want to find myself on speed-date ever again, it is an effective lens to view our approach to building a working relationship. For a CEO and CPO to begin working together as quickly as possible, we must cut through the formalities and get straight to the meat of who we are and how we like to work.
When my CEO cursed during that business call, he broke through the barrier of formality to show who he was and how he thought. This allowed us to progress in our relationship — as co-workers and as just two adults getting to know one another. While it may sound like a stretch, he showed his authentic self when he cursed, which helped me figure out how to better work with him.
Part of the CPO’s job is to help the CEO feel comfortable being themselves by asking thoughtful questions and bringing your authentic self to the table. There is no time for tip-toeing when the clock is ticking, and you’re off to the next board meeting, manager check-in and client phone call in five minutes. As a CPO, you must become a CEO whisperer.
While speed dating is initially helpful, every book on relationships will tell us that trust is the bedrock of any strong partnership. Investing in the CEO/CPO relationship and building trust to go beyond the first few dates and become a valued business partner is essential. So, how do we do that?
The CPO needs to be an effective leader if they want to become a trusted advisor. Though our job as a CPO primarily involves people, the standards to be met are no different than any other executive position. We need to have clear, measurable metrics to hold ourselves accountable. Are employees satisfied and motivated? Do we have a high retention rate? Are we attracting top candidates? We build trust by executing our role with excellence, meeting (and even surpassing) our metrics.
As you prove yourself to be a functional leader, you will earn influence as a thought partner to whom the CEO can go when they need counsel. But a thought partner can only be effective if they remain honest, even when the feedback they have to share is not what the CEO wants to hear.
The CPO often becomes the outlet to which many people proffer feedback. In these cases, the CPO becomes the CEO’s window into the areas of the company to which they may not have access, and they need to trust that the CPO will open the blinds without throwing a rose-colored tint on the window pane.
Related: Want Strong Business Relationships? Avoid These 3 Mistakes.
Beyond cupcakes and yoga
There is a misconception that a CPO’s role deals entirely with “cupcakes and yoga” — they throw pizza parties to celebrate wins, schedule in-office yoga classes and serve as an on-demand therapist. While these elements certainly have a time and place, the far more critical part of their job is that of strategic leader and advisor. CPOs need to understand the nuts and bolts of the business to become trusted and valuable advisors to the CEO and, as a result, to the entire company.
For example, if the CPO doesn’t understand how the sales cycle operates, they cannot advise the CEO on a dilemma they are facing with the head of sales. It is not enough to know what falls under the CPOs domain (recruiting, retention, etc.) — CPOs need to be deeply embedded in the business with a holistic understanding of the ins and outs of each element to support the CEO and every employee who works for them.
Relationships take work
Now more than ever, we must understand that people and relationships power the health and productivity of our business. And as leaders, the CEO and CPO have an immense influence on the company’s approach to such relationships — is it a space where people work to communicate honestly and show up authentically? Or is it a space of discord, miscommunication and finger-pointing? If the CEO and CPO actively work to cultivate a positive relationship, the results will reverberate throughout the company.
Related: The Things Successful Leaders Do and Don’t Do to Build Relationships
No relationship is perfect, and every relationship takes work — there is a reason close to 50% of married couples have gone to couples therapy at one point or another. There will always be days when we don’t get along and miscommunications arise. The best relationships are not those that are picture-perfect because, more often than not, those are the relationships that sweep their problems under the rug. Good relationships allow for imperfection, leaving space for growth and trusting that we can work through missteps with grace and compassion for all parties involved.