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Struggling to Speak Truth to Power? An interview with Brian Walker

Uncategorized Jun 17, 2024
Struggling to Speak Truth to Power? An interview with Brian Walker


Struggling to Speak Truth to Power?

Many CHROs face this challenge daily. Building trust. Being included in key conversations. Making a significant impact.

Join me as I dive deep into these issues with Brian Walker, SVP of Business Services and CHRO, also known as the "CEO Whisperer."

In this 19-minute interview, you'll learn:

  • The Art of Style Switching
  • Building Trust with CEOs
  • Practical advice for HR leaders

Listen, watch, or read now!


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Note: Transcript generated automatically.


@18:00 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

Hi there. This is Cindy Lu with CHRO Master of Mind Groups. And I'm joined today with Brian Walker. I'll have Brian introduce himself in a minute.

But today we're going to talk about style switching and how that helps you basically build more influence and trust.

And Brian has this nickname of CEO Whisper that some of his peers have given him. And we're going to jump into how he does that because I think all CHROs could definitely benefit.

I fit from it. Brian, first, tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and Alkechen.


@19:05 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

Thank you, Cindy. Hi, everybody. Yeah, my background, I grew up in between Las Vegas and Mexico. And I had an extensive career in international business.

I worked for Walmart for 18 years, where I had Expat Assignments in Mexico, Indonesia, mainland China, Kong. After all those years, I left Walmart.

went to work for Kimberly Clark, where I ran HR for everything outside of the U.S. And then joined Sally Beauty for a short time at CHRO.

And now I've been here with Alkegen for six and a half, going on seven years now, where we make, we're a global specialty manufacturer specializing in high-temperature insulation products like 1,000 degrees Celsius.

and higher filtration products, especially for specialty filtration like AGN batteries and clean room filtration applications and a lot of other stuff, but that's mostly what we do.

So it's great to talk to you soon, it's good to be here.


@20:19 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

Yeah, it sounds like you've had quite the globe trotting background in your past and when we were talking earlier, you talked about style switching.

Can you dive into that a little bit more? think this is such an interesting topic and I love how you've worked on that for yourself.


@20:37 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

Yeah, I grew up overseas. I actually lived in Argentina as a young man too. grew up overseas and I innately knew that when you go from one place to another things change.

In fact, I learned that very hard lesson when I moved from Mexico to Indonesia and everything I had done in Mexico failed and I was like, what is going on?

And I remember starting to buy books on culture. reading them. I went through this learning process where, yeah, cultures are different.

A lot of us know this now, but I spent the rest of my career, I was relatively young when that happened, spent the rest of my career trying to study and understand how to switch, and they call it style switching, how to switch styles when you go from one culture to another.

And I had a lot of, even today, I have the opportunity to go from one country to another, and deal with people from one culture to another multiple times a day sometimes.

And there was a time I was going from country to country every week, and I go to Mexico, for example, and warm up to the way Mexicans do things and all the warmth they have and the energy.

then you go to Asia, it's collectivism. and you can't, you know, face and don't ask somebody a very specific question, ask it to the group.

And I had to learn a lot of different techniques and, and so what I learned was that every time you deal with somebody from a different culture, it's not, it's not disingenuous to change the way you work with them.

In fact, it's desirable to be able to switch styles and say, I know what works here and I know what works there and so let me do it, let me do it differently with you.

It doesn't always work, but but it actually it is effective. And I think over the years I did it so much that now, even in my day to day life, when I go from one executive to another executive, for example, I don't have a problem adapting to the style of that executive because I've just done it so long.

that makes sense.


@22:56 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

Yeah, no, I love that. It reminds me of consultative selling when they talk about being the chameleon to your client or prospect to make them feel more comfortable, but you're taking it to a whole different level.

So let's talk about that. You've been given this nickname of CEO Whisper. Tell me what are the things that play into that, and I know you had to do some sort of research with folks to find out, because it's hard to see what you would do naturally.


@23:27 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

But what do people say? Yeah, I knew I'd been given a nickname, so when we decided we going to talk about this, I really had to go ask people.

okay, why do people say that about me? I kind of know, Look, term CEO Whisper comes from a peers, because they started to come to trust me to say, come and say, hey, Brian, we should go talk to our boss, our CEO, about X, Y, Usually, it's about a sense of this.

object, you know, maybe something that he wouldn't take very well, or maybe some bad news, or who knows what, but usually sensitive.

And, you know, I don't always take, like, no, like, well, then what they mean by we was me, because they want me to go pave the road for them to, for them to, for me, to soften the blow with the CEO.

so I, I often just push back and say, going to do that, if you want, I'll go with you, you know, or maybe hear some advice or thoughts about how we approach it.

But sometimes I do, sometimes I have the opportunity, I do spend a lot of time with my boss, or I have over the, I, I have always made it my mission and my job, I believe my number one priority is to work with a CEO, any job I'm in, right, is to work with, of course, to, to help them be the best they can be, as it leads


@25:00 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

that's my primary job, right?


@25:03 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

And so I dedicate a lot of time, spending a lot of time with them, and I'll go sometimes and say, hey, I heard this or I heard that, I do it subtly, I don't do it, I don't throw people under the bus.

And that allows the CEO then to take time to process, sometimes temperatures rise because it's a sensitive topic, sometimes we just have a good conversation, anything through things, sometimes he doesn't say anything, then the conversation comes up and it goes, normally goes well.

But I think my team, my peers, have over the years come to appreciate the ability for me to help maneuver through difficult conversations, not always ahead of time either, sometimes in the heat of the moment, to be able to calm that storm down a little bit, I think that's what we mean by it.

ACTION ITEM: Provide Brian with tips on how to build trust and exposure with executives, including including his LinkedIn in the show notes - WATCH


@26:00 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

So, I guess, you know, being able to speak truth to power for many HR leaders is a challenge. And something that I see sort of across the board, CEOs tend to be driver type personalities, right?

I think that in general CEOs can have very strong personalities. I know that I had a little bit of that reputation myself at one point.

So having somebody that you really trust that you can count on to tell you the truth is so, so important, yet it's so challenging.

How do you build that kind of trust with your CEOs in the past?


@26:41 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

Yeah, I just say, and I hope I don't get in trouble for this, you know, I often say to be a CEO, you have to be an SOB.

And what I mean by that is that CEOs have, you have to have a certain you have to have a certain personality to make the tough decisions and do the tough things that you have to do as a of.

Otherwise, you can't make it. And there's a certain personality type that makes it. it comes out different ways. I know a lot of CEOs are very nice people.

But they're also very intense. They're always very intense. And so the building trust is a really good question, because it's hard to describe sometimes like this but flavor of salt.

look, number one, I would say it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. And you start out with positive intent, and you work through challenges.

I would say, in my case, trust comes from, I spend a lot of time. I try to spend quality time.

I listen a lot. I allow my CEOs to vent when they need to vent. I don't try to feed bad behavior, right?

In other words, if they go off and start saying things and people say things sometimes. what I try to do is create.

a safe space for them to say whatever they need to say in front of me is better than in front of everybody else if it's going to be spicy let's say and then you know normally that calms things down allows them to process to say what they need to say I also then give feedback so my you know my CEO or my CEO's would tell them would say I think if you ask them that number one I listen number two they believe that I tell them what needs to be said I don't spend more time talking than listening though I'm very conscientious about listening I'm sure I hear I let them say I let them articulate and then I also it's usually subtly usually usually my approach is very subtle in terms of consider this consider that I heard this sometimes in style switching way I will raise the temperature myself and

And do it little more strongly and because I don't do it often it tends to be very effective when I do Yeah, no, that's awesome.


@29:09 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

do think number one the listening more than talking is so important Right, we used to have a rule of thumb and consultative selling which is like 80-20 Like the client needs to be talking 80% of the time.

Otherwise, you don't know the answers right to the to the test I also think that this the trust is not just that they know you're gonna keep things in confidence or You know between the two of you but also that you you're willing to tell them the truth that you're brave enough You're courageous enough to tell them the truth and to me that that built a lot of trust You know, I had an awesome CEO and she would always tell me the truth She's just wired that way even though she's fairly young and It made me trust her more because I'm like, okay.

I don't have to guess at what she's thinking, right? And she was also a very good listener, too.


@30:02 - Brian Walker - Alkegen



@30:02 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

I do have to balance it, right?


@30:04 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

Because I do tell my boss of truth all the time. And I'm very transparent, is what I hear, this is what I know.

But I also have to protect the relationship I have with my peers and with other employees, right? Sometimes I hear things, and you have to keep confidentiality.

And I have a very good relationship with my boss. Sometimes I tell him everything, and I say, but you can't let anybody know I told you that.

Like even last week, I told my boss, I said, I know this thing. Here's how I know it. You can't let the other person know how you know this.

You have to go discover it yourself.


@30:42 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

And he did.


@30:43 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

He's very effective, you know, there's a reason to see you. But sometimes I don't. Sometimes I say, look, I can't tell you where I heard that, because I can't throw people on the bus.

And he understands that, too. And he understands because we have trust, right?


@30:58 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

That's smart. That's CEO, right? is so lonely. I know that I often say the CHRO role is lonely, but the CEO, I mean, you've got this board, right, that you have to be ready and on for.

And boards aren't always there to give advice, they're to govern, right? And then you've got a whole team that's looking to you and it's just it gets really lonely.

So I know that I've led teams in the past where I never didn't have that inner circle built yet, and it just just feel like you're in your head, your own head all the time.

But to have somebody that you trust and that you know you can turn to is that's a gift.


@31:41 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

Yeah, and by the way, I totally agree with the point. CEO is a very lonely job and part of my job is they help it be less lonely, right?


@31:50 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)



@31:51 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

As much as I can.


@31:53 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

Yeah, so what I heard from you when you're in this moments, heated moments is that you're calling from the storm, take time to listen, you let them vent, you're settling your feedback, but occasionally you'll turn up the heat if needed to make sure it's really effective.

So I think these are great things to keep in mind for up-and-coming HR leaders, but also CHROs who are struggling with speaking truth to power.


@32:21 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

Yeah, look, what I think at some point I learned as a CHRO, that is the job, right?


@32:28 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

That, you know, what do I deliver?


@32:30 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

What does our talent process look like? What does our performance management process look like? How are we doing the work with HR?

That's obviously that's really important and that builds trust too, right?


@32:39 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

I have trust with my boss and my boss is because we deliver. Right.


@32:44 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

that's, my job there is the higher a team that can do the work and the coach and lead that team.

When I find myself doing those things and I'm spending too much time doing those things, like I would never tell my CEO.

I don't have time. I don't have time to go spend with you because I'm working in this other really important thing.

That defeats the purpose of my job.


@33:07 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

How do you get the time? mean, this is so hard. Sometimes I talk to CHROs and it's like, maybe I get to meet with my boss every other week or once a month.

how do you get that time?


@33:19 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

interestingly, we used to work together in Buffalo, and then we opened this office in Dallas, and I moved back because used to live here before.

And look, when we were in Buffalo together, we spoke every day. During COVID, he called me every day. This is interesting, right?

He literally called me every day because he wanted to talk to somebody and we talked about everything. When I moved here, it was hard because he stayed in Buffalo.

And so for the first year, we had to find a new rhythm. And it required me to travel back to Buffalo quite a bit.


@33:57 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

You know, I had to actually just go be there.


@33:59 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

And And he came here sometimes. Now he comes a lot more often. Now he has he kind of splits his time between the two places.

And, you know, when he's going to be in town, which is about half the time now, he, you know, I just clear my calendar.

my time is dedicated to being with him.


@34:18 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

I go to his meetings.


@34:19 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

I am with him, not all the time, but most of time. And then the rest of the time, you know, if he's traveling somewhere else, I'll often go with him to wherever he's going.

And we travel to get up. He's going to be the plants in Europe. I'll go to Europe with him, you know, and I don't, I don't force myself in.

He invites me because he knows he knows I want to be there and he wants me to be there.


@34:40 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

And going back to your comment, it doesn't happen in a day, right? It's not just over time, but it's also the amount of time during the years, right?

It's not just, hey, we meet once a quarter. It's having real face time.


@34:56 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

I couldn't imagine, I couldn't imagine having. scenario where I meet with him once every two weeks, know, or, you know, there's a schedule where I go and have an agenda and we don't, I know, and look, I know there's people that operate that way, but that's, that's just, I think that could work in terms of managing the function, but it doesn't work in terms of managing my boss, right, or helping him to be the best leader he can be.


@35:23 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

But I'll tell you, Brian, what that tells me is that he finds value in the time with you as well, right.

So it's not you having to beg to get on the counter. It's that that executive, whether it's the CEO or others, they're finding value in that time.

And that's something that we used to talk about is make sure you leave after every meeting, make sure that you've left that person better and that they have gained some value, not and that only comes with you asking lot of questions and letting them talk versus you doing all the talking.

So yeah, I love it. Any parting advice for our audience?


@36:00 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

I don't know what else to say. This has been a difficult topic because I had to really think and reflect about what do I do?

I just can't emphasize enough, it's the time invested in the relationship, right, in the trust building, and I know that's hard to define trust.

It's different, every individual is different, I don't think there's any other solution except for just to put the time in.


@36:28 - Cindy Lu (CHRO Partners)

Actually, I have one more thing that we were just in our mastermind group. What's said in the mastermind stays in the mastermind, but I'm not going to reveal who said this, but I will reveal your advice, which I thought was great.

It was about giving a C-suite executive feedback that they needed to hear, and I think your advice, Brian, was like, you need to switch stances, if you've been doing the same message and it's not working.

Switch switch your stance. So I think that file switch, right? That's right. That's right.


@37:06 - Brian Walker - Alkegen

right Brian, thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your wisdom and experiences with our audience I know they'll really appreciate it Would it be all right if we put your LinkedIn in the show notes so that people can connect with you?

Absolutely, all right Thank you, Cindy. Th

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