HomeLeadershipBoardroom RelationshipsHow to build a great relationship with your CEO

How to build a great relationship with your CEO

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Building a great relationship with a CEO takes time and hard work. Owain Thomas discovers how Bunge’s EMEA CEO and VP of HR grew their partnership.

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Building a great relationship with a CEO takes time and hard work. Owain Thomas discovers how Bunge’s EMEA CEO and VP of HR grew their partnership


The HR function is increasingly seen as the key to business success in the modern environment, however this view is not always reflected by some board members.

As a result, one of the most pressing items on the agenda for many HR directors is to establish themselves and the function as a vital part of the business.

While convincing everyone can be tricky, forming a close working relationship with the CEO is the key link that can produce great rewards which benefit the business and the HR function.

One example of such a close working partnership is that within global agribusiness Bunge’s Europe, Middle East and Africa division.

Bunge vice president of human resources for EMEA William L. McClain (pictured above) told HRD Connect that it took a business first approach from the start to build the foundations for the relationship with EMEA CEO Tommy Jensen.



Business first

“Really from day one I’ve pushed to say HR has a role,” he says. “I think coming in with a business first mind set into the function; I’ve always tried to work that way.”

Indeed, McClain’s relationship with Jensen is so strong that many of the other board members use him as an avenue to the CEO.

“A lot of the teams look at Tommy and myself as real partners and even the CFO or others look to me to be a conduit to him, and so they come to me with certain questions with decisions when things need to happen.

“So I’ve always been in a great spot working with him and in the value he’s put on me, but also the function itself,” he adds.

This is reinforced by Jensen’s view that in the current turbulent times the HR leader is the most important person at the boardroom table.

He believes that while finance chiefs look backward, HR leaders takes a wider view, identifying the people who can create the business results.

So what are the key demands Jensen expects from his chief HR officer?

“Well first of all he has to be credible, he has to take charge, he has to lead, he has to be honest and open with the CEO but also with his peers and with the people below him,” he says.

“I think to be authentic is one of the key words in today’s business life and I think it counts for CHRO more than anybody these days.”

Bunge EMEA CEO: CHRO is the most important person, not the CFO


Tommy-Jensen-BungeCEO tips

Putting these ideals into practise can sometimes be difficult, but Jensen (pictured right) offers his tips on how forming a strong working relationship and building that trust and integrity has worked for him.

He believes it is critical for this relationship to be natural in development with a recognised appreciation from both sides about how important it is to form a partnership.

“We take on the challenge together, we are honest with each other and if you allow the creativity with the HR team to come out and drive the business, that’s the way you get the best results,” he says.

“I would like to give input and get results and get drive from the HR person, rather than tell them what to do. I think that doesn’t work these days. So a natural development of a relationship that’s the most important I think,” he adds.

McClain remembers one instance that typifies how their bond was built.

It came from earlier in their careers at Bunge when the organisation had made several acquisitions within central Europe.

The need to decide how the business would operate – whether it should remain de-centralised and other structural challenges – brought the pair together.

“I called him up one day and told him ‘we have to do something, we can’t keep going on the way we are, I’ll come to Poland’,” explains McClain.

“We went into a meeting room, we closed the door, I put a piece of paper on the desk and said ‘I don’t leave until we have the organisation as we see fit’. And I think he saw me then with courage and what we are trying to do.

“And we sat through the entire day to plot it out and I think from there we have a respect and relationship that works.”



Clear expectations

This sat well with Jensen and has led to a strong working relationship as their careers within the multinational organisation have progressed.

Indeed, clear expectations of what a HR leader should be doing and delivering have helped to facilitate this – as, of course, has meeting those expectations.

“His expectation of HR is one to make decisions, have an opinion on all things related to business,” continues McClain.

“He looks at HR to have a real voice and as key to all the other functions and leaders in the organisation. And in the end delivering results, which is probably one of the things that has built the strong relationship that we have is I’m a results driven kind of guy, I get things done and I think again that’s his expectation that we are getting that – whether that’s HR itself but also within the organisation.”

One of the biggest concerns within the HR profession and with boardroom leaders at present is being able to relate people decisions to the business.

Ram Charan emphasised that HR leaders should have experience within a different sector or different function before reaching the boardroom.

This has been echoed by many experts and Jensen supports this position too.

“I agree totally that HR people should have business exposure before, after or in the time that they are HR people,” he says.

“But I think that today the human resources officer is so important that it’s not enough to be a good HR person, you have to understand about business – I don’t mean about gross margin, I mean drivers in business, motivations of people to create results, the ability of people to look differently at things.

“I’m absolutely in favour of this, in fact I think it’s absolutely necessary in today’s world,” he concludes.


Ram Charan: This is an era for HR

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