August 5, 2023

How to Center People Teams in Business Decisions

Rhiannon Stone

Imagine this: it’s the start of a new quarter. The CEO just laid out the company OKRs, the VP of Sales is discussing pipeline growth, and the CMO is about to review the brand awareness campaign launched last quarter. But where’s the people lead?

People teams create resilient workplaces that retain key talent, have great morale, and sustain a high level of productivity. You can even be the difference between whether the company turns a profit or makes a loss.

But people teams like yours struggle to make their voices heard, with 26% saying they lack buy-in from leadership. Even when they do get involved in strategic decisions, it’s often too late to make a difference.

So, why do people teams get overlooked—and what can they do to advocate for themselves? This article covers:

  • How to communicate your value effectively with key stakeholders
  • How to increase your influence with executive peers
  • How to get buy-in for your budget

The real worth of people teams

People teams like yours impact company finances, talent wars, legal compliance, employee retention, and core business activities. On top of all that, you’re regularly protecting your company from liability—but could still be held accountable for its shortcomings. It’s a responsibility most people would crumble under. 

So why do these important teams get overlooked in business decisions? Because some stakeholders still don’t think people teams have a direct, measurable impact—and most people leaders don’t know how to bust that myth. 

“Other departments have a shorter gratification loop,” says Stuart Thorburn, People Experience Lead at Learnerbly. “Take the sales team: they close a deal, the company gets $5,000. Meanwhile, people leaders can’t point to the money they’ve made for the business. And most of their colleagues think they’re just busy mailing out employee contracts and organizing socials.”

In fact, 57% of CEOs still believe people teams play a largely administrative role—and totally overlook their commercial impact. 

Meanwhile, research by the Harvard Business Review shows that people teams don’t just affect business performance— they have a significant impact. Crucially, companies that moved from the bottom to the top quartile in employee experience metrics generated over 50% more revenue and profits. That proves just how valuable your team can be.

Why data is your sidekick

For people teams to have a direct, measurable impact on the business, they need data. But that’s easier said than done when you’re mostly dealing with abstracts like engagement, performance, and development. 

Plus, many companies underestimate the need for employee experience metrics. A recent study found 67% of HR departments weren’t collecting sufficient data to understand team performance and engagement.

But it’s never too late to start paying attention to the numbers. In fact, you and data can make a formidable duo—you just need to know what you’re looking for. 

Right now, people teams are typically tracking:

  • HR: Turnover rates, absences, workplace demographics, employee engagement
  • L&D: Training participation and completion rates, assessment results, course feedback
  • Recruitment: Application completion rate, time-to-hire, cost-per-hire

The problem is, some executives don’t necessarily see your data as a priority. But these metrics can have a significant impact on the areas they do care about. Research by Glassdoor showed a strong positive correlation between employee and customer satisfaction—which in turn leads to higher stock value.

Key metrics that drive decision-making

Knowing which metrics really speak to your company’s leaders will show you exactly why people teams belong at the center of business decisions—and give you an idea of how to get them there.

Of course, all organizations have their differences, but most executives are interested in:

  • Revenue and profitability metrics like total revenue, profit margins, and return on investment (ROI)
  • Key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure progress toward goals like sales growth and customer acquisition
  • Expenses like overheads and operating costs that let leaders assess how effectively they’re managing funds and resources
  • Customer metrics which include churn rate, acquisition cost, and ratings
  • Market metrics such as market share and brand awareness that gauge your company’s competitive position

When you can turn employee experiences into data that directly affects these metrics, then you’re really speaking the C-suite’s language.

Using data to tell a story

Data can unlock a lot of doors when you use it to tell a story. People teams need to get comfortable using research to benchmark their data, setting goals that are aligned with the company strategy, and monitoring their progress over time.

For example, L&D champions and people leaders can find out if their initiatives have reduced the onboarding ramp by comparing team performance metrics to the number of new hires who’ve completed their first training course. 

If those who’ve done a course are hitting their targets more quickly, you know you’re doing something right. You can use this information to justify initiatives to motivate other team members to complete their training too.

Platforms like Learnerbly are the simplest way people teams can track L&D metrics like engagement and budget utilization. Depending on the platform, it’ll automatically record key data and visualize it on a line graph, so it’s easier to spot trends like dips in course sign-ups or booms in requests for a specific training resource.

Over time, you can use data to build a compelling narrative about how your department drives the company forward. As your team keeps hitting their targets and impacting company performance, you’ll show that you’re an effective, results-driven leader, capable of delivering measurable impact for the business.

It’s all about how you communicate your worth

While people teams are working to undo misconceptions about their role, other leaders may not expect any input from them on the business strategy. Don’t wait for them to ask—you’ll have to be proactive and report on your own impact. 

Think about how you can give senior stakeholders regular updates on your team’s achievements. You could try a monthly mailout of standout statistics or a quarterly meeting to report on project progress and get feedback. You could also make a company-wide update in your next all-hands meeting to raise awareness about your initiatives.

And remember, if you’ve got compelling data, you’ve already got a great hook. 

Let’s say the company is seeing a general uptick in employee retention. So, you walk it backward and discover a strong correlation between sign-up rates to your department’s new wellbeing program and overall employee engagement levels. Then, you break down how much the company has saved in recruitment and onboarding costs by retaining the employees it has instead, of hiring new ones.

If telling the CEO that 80% of the team has completed their training requirements doesn't get their attention, letting them know you've cut hiring costs by 40% will. And now you’ve got a strong argument for why people teams deserve buy-in and why people leaders belong in big-picture conversations.

Explaining the ‘why’

Even beyond data, people teams can strengthen their position by relating their initiatives back to business objectives, financial gains, and other key metrics. 

If leaders see a new L&D initiative as ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ for employees, they’re more likely to see it as expendable. But if you link it to increased productivity, higher engagement levels, and increased retention rates, they’ll be more likely to fight for it.

Explaining the ‘why’ behind initiatives also increases the chances they’ll be successful. Research by Lattice shows teams are twice as likely to meet their goals when they have people enablement initiatives and everyone understands them. And depending on how well you set leaders and other departments up for success, they can become your biggest cheerleaders or your worst critics.

That means over-communicating on big things like why the company is rolling out engagement surveys to little things like how employees can sign into their L&D account. 

But communication doesn’t end once you’ve delivered instructions and launched a program. It also requires reacting to key stakeholders for feedback, addressing their concerns, and encouraging a dialogue. 

When people teams have regular contact with stakeholders through surveys and 1:1s, it’s easier to predict what questions will arise around new initiatives and change in general. That way, you can be prepared to communicate more effectively around the issues that matter most. 

For instance, if you think leaders will have concerns about whether teams will use that new software, you can pull research about adoption rates and reviews from other companies like yours. Then, you’ll be armed with data to back up your bid for a subscription to the platform.

Building trust and rapport with the C-suite

The words you use are just one aspect of workplace communication. People teams can also increase their influence by considering the wider company culture. Having a deep understanding of what makes your peers tick will help you develop stronger relationships with leaders and other departments.

Get to know the C-suite execs in your company. Pay attention to their backgrounds, working styles, and values to understand what resonates with them.

Maybe your CEO is highly analytical and has a technical background. It’s likely they’ll appreciate you having a deep understanding of your data and using accurate terminology to update them. But, if they’re more of a ‘people person’ and came to the industry from a less-technical background, they might prefer hearing the headlines only with more context about how it relates to the company’s objectives. 

But rather than stereotyping members of your C-suite, it’s about observing their distinct communication styles. Note what frustrates them and what makes their eyes light up. Listen actively and check your understanding of their requests.

A recent study by Accenture finds that high-performing HR leaders are four times more likely to have excellent relationships with their executive peers. So, finding out how to communicate well with your C-suite is key to increasing your influence and getting heard.

Changing the way your company views people teams

It’s frustrating when leaders don’t include you in business decisions. It’s almost worse when they only ask for your input when it’s too late to stop them from making a big mistake.

“Your people team is the hub that connects every other department,” says Stuart Thorburn, People Experience Lead at Learnerbly. “Sure, those other departments are important spokes in the wheel of your company. But, while everyone races along the road, you’re stabilizing the entire wheel. Sometimes we forget that, without spokes, the wheel would rattle and fall apart.”

Involving people teams in big-picture talks benefits everyone from the CEO to employees and your customers. You know it, you’ve just got to prove it.

That means getting to know the data inside out, becoming your own biggest advocate, and learning to speak the C-suite’s language. When you know your value as a team and can communicate it to your peers, you’ll see the whole wheel wants to praise those all-important spokes.

Want to find out more about getting buy-in for your L&D strategy? Read "The Complete Guide to Effective L&D Budgets for Ambitious Businesses" today.

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