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How to Build a Fan Base

How to Build a Fan Base

Martha Finney, CEO Career Landscapes

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Paul Bianchi, then PeopleSoft’s senior vice president of HR. And he made an observation that has stuck with me since: HR’s power inside the company is measured by its ability to influence, not its ability to enforce. I suppose the same can be said of all positions that encompass leadership. But the corollary is equally true: Because HR must depend so much on its ability to influence to get the job done, its opportunity to lead is expanded proportionately.

In other words, if you’re in HR, you are truly in the catbird seat when it comes to being able to drive growth and change throughout the entire company. But first, you have to have a cadre of individuals above and below you on the org chart (and customers out there in the great big wide world, as well) who trust, respect and believe in you. You have to have a fan base. And that requires an investment of regularly applied inspiring behaviors on a daily basis – those ordinary days when nothing much seems to be at stake. Those are the days, actually, when everything is at stake. Because those are the days when you’re establishing yourself as the leader who can be trusted and followed – no matter how high the risk.

Here’s how you can use your “everyday” days to build a fan base for these extraordinary times:

Be the company’s CPO (Chief Passion Officer). When it comes to implementing new HR initiatives, it’s so tempting (even reassuring) to rely on numbers – the statistics, the scores, the co-efficients, the aggregates – to prove the legitimacy of your theory and then later to demonstrate the efficacy of your action.  It makes you sound smart in the boardroom. But if you rely on numbers completely, you’ll miss the whole point of talent management.  (On a panel discussion about employee engagement one year, I was sandwiched between two consultants who  spouted percentages. The consultant to the left of me actually said to the consultant to the right of me:  “My database is bigger than yours.”)

When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of your employees, appeal to their hearts. Their minds will follow. In addition to taking care of themselves and their families, high-quality talent wants to see how their efforts are making a difference in the world.  Have you noticed how The Purpose-Driven Life continues to sell millions of copies? Or how about What Color is Your Parachute? Or Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow?  When you speak to your employees about the work they do, speak in terms of their passion and drive for meaning in their workday lives. (And give me a buzz if you ever spot a book called The Statistics-Driven Life. I won’t hold my breath.)

Sell what people want to buy. Don’t throw away your familiarity with co-efficients, scores, aggregates, statistics and databases altogether. There are people inside your organization who insist that you translate passion into integers. Since they’re the ones most likely to sign off on your proposals and give you the money to put all that burning passion to good use, you better be able to speak their lingo.  They have to trust you, too.

Make your office Destination Yes. Over the years, HR as a corporate function has developed the bad rap as the place where innovation, suggestions, and ideas go to die. It’s really not hard to understand how it happened. With HR saddled with administrivia and exposure to all sorts of dread liability, it’s easier – and more efficient – to be safe than sorry. Most of the time, “no” can feel a safer word than “yes.”

But like water over rock, the long-term corrosive effect of accumulating “no’s” can be devastating. The liability is immeasurable. People will stop coming to you with really great ideas on how to build the company’s future. And high-value employees with special personal requests will assume the answer is “no,” and decide it’s better to find a new job than risk the disillusionment and disappointment of being turned away at your door.

A better approach: Cultivate an HR culture that thrives on finding great solutions to creative challenges. There are some terrific consultants and trainers who will come in for a day or two and teach your team the skills and intellectual habits that foster creative problem-solving.  Make each individual on your HR team personally responsible for delivering creative solutions, and then celebrate a job well done!

Know what you stand for. What is your personal brand? How do you want people to feel consistently when they work with you on a large project or merely run into you in the hall? What can the company’s leadership know they can count on you for? Authenticity? Integrity? A merry, unpretentious disposition? A deeply sensitive talent for understanding subtleties? A work ethic that values the spirit of service and stewardship?

Decide what characteristics you want to be known and respected for. And then stay consistent with those values and behaviors regardless of fleeting moods or the daily storms of doing business in uncertain times.

Keep confidences. I don’t need to expand on that one, do I?

Look for opportunities to fix things fast. There are so many quick, easy, and cheap things you can do to help your company on a daily basis. Dumb little stuff that just needs some attention. Or major projects that can be completed more quickly with more focus. A coffee pot that keeps burning the morning brew.  A weird smell coming from the restrooms that just needs an engineer’s attention.  A conversation that needs to be had.  A sales comp program that needs an ever-so-slight tweak to skyrocket the sales numbers.  You have the power to make it happen. Pick a department a month, ask them what’s going on that’s especially irksome, distracting, or counter-productive. And then fix it.

But also remember you’re nobody’s servant or scapegoat. Carry out your day with dignity and backbone. And your coworkers will know to come to you for help, not for a time- and spirit-vacuuming vent session.

Ditch the rotten carrot. Reconsider your incentive/rewards/comp/benefits programs. What do they say to your people about how you trust and respect them? Do your programs insult their intelligence? Do they really need another mylar balloon or coffee mug? Do they really need to be “caught doing something right,” with a surprise token of clutter? Do you need to be motivated that way? Probably not.

So what do you do instead (or in addition to…)?  Look for ways to show employees that as individuals they emerge from the crowd.  Visit your people on a one-on-one basis, have actual conversations with them, give them a chance to speak to you about your passion and drive and how it connects with what the company is doing.  Notice people. Address the meaningful things – the good and the bad – with your own personal attention.

Be fearless. When I have to listen to people complain about HR, the themes are common. Lack of creativity (see above). And totally chicken, well, let’s just say risk averse. Unfortunately, as HR takes on a growing burden of corporate accountability, the need to be cautious is bound to get worse. The thing is, because business must thrive on innovation and boundary-pushing, HR must be comfortable leading companies and their leadership into scary territories.  Which isn’t to say that I think you should go against your principles or wink at iffy practices. But I do mean that you should take a stand for principles when you see them being violated, even (maybe even especially) if it means your job is at stake. And learn to be very comfortable standing up to the leadership, able to tell them not only when they can’t do something, but also when they should do other things.

Have fun. Enjoy the people you work with and work for. Let them know how much you enjoy them. And they’ll follow you anywhere.

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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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