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Signs Your Chief People Officer Isn’t Scaling

August 17, 2023

If you’ve been following my previous blog posts about the Chief People Officer, you’ve figured out what to look for in a great CPO and when to hire one. Even knowing these things, you can’t just assume your executive is going to be able to scale with your company. So, what do you look for? I’ve found that Chief People Officers who aren’t scaling well past the startup stage have a few things in common in terms of how they operate.

First, a Chief People Officer might not be able to scale if they’re overly focused on the transactional aspects of the job. Don’t get me wrong, there are many transactional elements to HR—payroll, benefits, systems, process, and more—and they all have to operate well, or employees freak out. But the CPO who spends all their time on these issues isn’t delegating well, isn’t building a machine, isn’t building scalable people and processes to flawlessly and efficiently handle the details. This inability to delegate may be a lack of self-confidence or a lack of trust that others can step up, but either way, it’s a telltale red flag if a CPO is mostly focused on the transactional aspects of the role rather than the strategic aspects.

Another sign that your CPO may struggle to scale is if they won’t speak up in executive team meetings. Chief People Officers have every right and entitlement to hold opinions about the company’s strategy, products, operations, and financials. The good ones do—and they’re not shy about speaking up publicly about them. The weaker ones, or the ones who are in a bit over their heads, don’t speak up, don’t challenge others, because they either haven’t taken the time to learn and formulate those opinions, or because they don’t have enough confidence among their peers to voice them. The CPO needs to be a leader among leaders. In my opinion, any hesitancy to fully participate with their peers is a sign that maybe they’re not scaling, or not developing their own personal and executive skills.

If a CPO is having trouble managing or leading their own team, this is a third sign that they aren’t scaling. A good Chief People Officer spends time coaching all the other leaders in your business on how to be effective leaders, so it’s particularly worrisome when they themselves are not an effective leader, especially with what is usually a relatively small function. This is a classic case of the cobbler’s children walking around barefoot, and it’s a sign of trouble for your HR leader.

None of these signs by themselves is particularly worrisome to me, but together, they spell trouble. If you have a Chief People Officer who is transactional, doesn’t speak up, and has morale or turnover issues within their own team, you’ve got big problems. The CPO is critical to the entire organization, so if you find your CPO exhibiting several of these traits, you’ll need to address it quickly—either through coaching, by bringing on a fractional executive as a mentor, or by replacing the CPO. Often, coaching and fractional approaches are more cost-effective, less disruptive to the company, and lead to great results. Ignoring the issue is the worst approach for this important position.

-Matt Blumberg, August 17, 2023.