Question: What recommendations do you have for HR when execs think they know it all because they've read a few HR books.

Execs achieve success because of their decisiveness and confidence. However, they don't know everything, and people issues require more than textbook information.

As an HR leader, I feel it is tempting for them to read a book and believe they understand all related issues, then get sidetracked with the business of the business, and forget what they've read. It takes a certain vision and commitment to the people to follow through with initiatives.

How can HR managers help the execs?

9 Expert Insights

First, I would be thankful that one of my executives was interested enough in a topic for which I had some responsibility that she/he would read a book about it. I know a lot of HR professionals that would like to have that problem. At a minimum, it creates an opportunity for you to build a personal & credible relationship with the executive (or not.) I would not interpret it as a lack of respect for my expertise.

What you should do if your executive gets a bad idea from reading a book depends on your relationship with him. (I say him because the problem you described is most often associated with male leaders.) If you have built a long & trusting personal relationship, I would say; “That is a dumb idea & here’s why.” That approach also assumes that in the past, you have reacted in a supporting manner to many of his ideas. If you have not established this kind of relationship, I might ask; “Are you interested in talking about how we might make this idea work at our company?” In the course of dialog about the practical aspects of executing the idea, the executive may come to realize it’s a bad idea. If you have presented all the objections and the executive still makes the decision to implement it, (assuming he has the authority to do that,) your job is to support it & do everything you can to make it work.

It is theoretically possible that an executive could get a good idea from reading a book. In this case, I would say; “Thank you” and then make it happen. It will certainly be easy to get her/his support for execution.

A quote from Van Doren hangs in my office and has been helpful to me. It says; “Bring ideas in and treat them royally for one of them may be the King.”

A conversation with the Executive or anyone who brings ideas to you on the basis of some book or some conversation with a friend is what needs to happen.  I am confident that whomever the person, they rarely are giving you this input for any reason other than to be helpful.  And often, as you have indicated they don't have all of the components in mind that need to be taken into consideration.  Still they are trying to be helpful.

In training as a coach one of the basic cornerstones is to come from a place of curiosity.  Tell me the key point(s) of the book that got your attention.  How do you see that having application here in our organization?   After you are sure that you 'got' the executive's key points and perhaps reassure him/her that they are interesting/valid/valuable ... perhaps fill the person in on what other things needs to be put into the equation on the way to finding the best way to deal with whatever the topic.  

The result is that the exec feels validated and even appreciated for having the interest in help you with some aspect of what you're concerned with in your job.  And they will appreciate that it is often more complex than it might appear.  This person understands the bigger picture and you may just come away with some good ideas that you can incorporate.

I would turn this question inward. Challenges like this one often boil down to respect and value. Does the executive respect  my input as a business partner? What evidence do I have? Have I demonstrated my expertise in the area of visioning, leadership, strategy, etc? Examples? Introspective thinking like this helps us assess our own power and influence ability as well as identify developmental areas for future focus.

If your role has been focused more on compliance then get involved in projects / assignment  to help the business grow. Demonstrate your leadership expertise to business challenges the organization faces. Focus the people and leadership agenda on making sure that HR (you) adds value to the business. It is a sure way to get a seat at the table where you will be in a stronger position to influence the executive and the leadership agenda.

Demonstrate your own leadership effectiveness and expertise first before trying to change your executive.  

This is a great question!

One solution is helping these individuals diagnose their development level for each of the goals and or tasks at hand. My sense is  if they're reading books it's a topic of interest and you can support their interests by helping them gain clarity about to gain mastery in those areas.

I recommend using the situational leadership model to diagnose development level based on the goal or task at hand. This is a safe and supportive way for the HR execs to engage in a dialogue with you about their interests and also do some level setting about both their competence (demonstrated knowledge and skills) and commitment (motivation and confidence).

It will make your life easier because you'll have a safe way to establish that reading a book doesn't make you an expert, and they'll feel supported because you can them help them establish a path from where they are now to mastery. Situational leadership is a channel to increase the quality of your conversations and make it safe to openly discuss development level without crushing self esteem.


I think what is important is to have a conversation with the Executive who you believe is making conclusions based on a limited knowledge. This can be tricky and you have to be very clear about how to start such a conversation. IF this is crucial to you, then I recommend you read the book "Crucial Conversations" which teaches us how to communicate with people. If it is not crucial you might just start the conversation by sharing what you observe and ask whether your observations are valid. You should never accuse anybody of making conclusions that you might not have a full understanding of.

If it were me, I'd read those exact same books, schedule some time with the exec, and have a series of pseudo-book-club-type conversations where you discuss the parts of the books that you both agree with, the parts that you both don't, the parts where your opinions differ, and (most importantly) the parts that have particular applicability to what you call the 'business of the business.' Then you can check back in, on a regular basis, to insure the key points are kept top-of-mind.

What I’m hearing in your question is a request for guidance in dealing with (line) executives who discount the contribution of a seasoned HR Professional in dealing with “people issues.”  This kind of thing happens all too often where the senior leadership is not accustomed to soliciting information beyond its core, “inner circle.”

However, the most important decision line executives make is who they hire and promote.  Unless this decision is made well, nothing else is possible.  But when it is made well, everything is possible!  Astute executives realize they need all of the help they can get in this area and have the humility to ask for it.

You asked “How can HR managers help the execs?”  My answer is simple: “Help is something for which a person must ask.  Otherwise it is not help.  It is control.”  Any unsolicited “help” will be seen as interference or control.

To assist you in creating the dynamic, synergistic relationship with HR you apparently desire, I’d have to have more knowledge about the organizational culture.  However, a place to begin is with curious inquiry about how these executives (you wish to support) view their “people issues.”  What are their most difficult and intractable issues?  Inquiry along this line may provide you insight into how you can help them.

Instead of focusing on what they know - ask what they want.  What do they want to see differently?  People are 19times more likely to avoid pain than seek gain.  So find the pain point and show how you can help.

Communicate, be persistent, have answers to concerns and issues, know your business, explain advantages are just a few. It may take time, but sooner or later the Exec will see your point and, hopefully, begin to take your advice.  

It is a challenge. Keep the Quest Alive!