The Language of Success

There is a common language used by top-level managers in every company, and these managers assume you can speak that language. It is a language centered on business concepts and understanding a handful of concepts. Whenever those of us in talent acquisition or human resources are not part of a conversation, it may simply be that we don?t speak or understand that language.

For example, CEOs instinctively move toward the action that will maximize profits and minimize costs or expenses. Investment is the first concept and cost savings is second. To them this is as basic as breathing, and they often do not consciously even realize that they have moved in that direction. However, many HR professionals focus on costs or on how a candidate feels about a given action, and they emphasize these over the investment side or over the impact on profits in presentations and conversations.

For example, I might hear a recruiter say, “I felt that the extra time spent with that candidate as worth it because they will now say nicer things about us to other potential candidates.” A CEO might, instead, phrase it this way, “Spending a few extra minutes with the candidate could result in our firm making two or three additional hires because of the positive comments we will get. That would mean we would be able to spend less on advertising and make faster hires.”

They are really saying the same thing, but the focus and language are different.

Here are four other things an executive assumes you know and practice.

Assumption #1: Knowing and Responding to Business Priorities

A business priority is defined by Ram Charan, Harvard business professor and author of an outstandingly valuable book called ?What the CEO Wants You to Know,? as ?the most important action that needs to be taken at a certain point in time.?

Sometimes this is hiring people as fast as you can, sometimes it is hiring only the absolutely A+ players, and sometimes it is not hiring at all. Priorities can change quickly and CEOs expect that you understand that and are prepared to react accordingly. Most CEOs would be shocked to learn that their recruiters or their HR department had anticipated a change in priorities and made adjustments. Yet, this is exactly the kind of behavior that would make you respected and listened to at the management table. Positive response to change and understanding that there are no absolutes are key attributes of a business-focused manager.

Assumption #2: Having an Investor Mentality

Do you think like an investor in your company would think? Your CEO has to think like an investor and make choices. This includes unpopular ones that give investors confidence. They focus on improving business processes and finding ways to cut costs. Recruiters and HR are often perceived as acting the opposite way. They request expensive tools (e.g. ATS and HRMS systems) without showing how they will add to the profits or improve the investor perception.

This is the hardest of all the assumptions for us in recruiting and HR to deal with. We seem to be predisposed to focus on process improvements over costs savings or other metrics that CEOs understand. You have to understand what your CEO is thinking in order to have any chance of creating a successful way of influencing her.

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Focus on execution, on saving money and present the request for the HRMS system as a way to reduce the need for support staff. Show how the system pays for itself over some time period and, if the math doesn’t work, drop the idea.

Assumption #3: Quality Counts More Than Ever

Yes, every CEO I know believes in and supports total quality. It has become a mantra in the best firms, and most large (and many smaller) companies have instituted Six Sigma programs and Black-belt training. HR has to emphasize quality and establish its own “black belts.” What would an absolutely first rate, 100% “defect free” recruiting process look like? What would it “buy” your organization? Have any of us used this slower time to think about this and begin to set up a Six Sigma recruiting process in our firms?

Your CEO assumes that you are doing this (or maybe not, as you are just recruiters, after all).

Assumption #4: Knowing How You Fit into the Strategy

The CEOs I work with assume that all departments, except usually HR and staffing, know how they contribute to the big picture. They are expected to present what they will do to help the firm achieve its strategic goals, imperatives, or whatever you call them. Talent strategies are critical to every organization. If the CEO cannot get the talent she needs to execute strategy, the strategy will fail and along with it the organization. That is why I see some firms turning away from recruiters and HR when it comes to formulating and carrying out a talent strategy. They are instead asking a line manager, a project manager, or some other business-focused person to lead the effort. Numerous firms are replacing the vice president of HR with a non-HR professional for the same reason.

You must know how you fit into the overall vision of the firm and you must show how you can contribute to achieving business success. That means showing how what you do will increase the profits of your organization.

That is ultimately all that your CEO really wants you to know or to do.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


1 Comment on “The Language of Success

  1. ‘…if the math doesn’t work, drop the idea.’

    Thanks for the great article Kevin! If more people realized (like you do!) that it’s the bottom line that drives decisions in a company there would be far less high-falutin’ theories to wade through. It’s simple math, not calculus.


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