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What Does Great Look Like in a Chief People Officer?

August 3, 2023

Photo by Yibei Geng / Unsplash

While all CXOs are important to a company, the Chief People Officer is the one role you don’t want to get wrong, because People Ops impacts every facet of a company.

If you hire the wrong people—even one wrong person—you’ll regret it, and so will everyone else in your company. If you short-change the onboarding process, you’ll create tons of work for others in the company who will have to answer questions, teach new hires about your systems, and help them get up to speed quickly—not to mention creating a frustrating experience for the new hire. And, of course, if you or your employees do anything illegal, discriminatory, or harassing, you’ll end up in legal trouble and you’ll lose—big time. It’s not enough, if you’re expanding rapidly, to “just hire a Chief People Officer,” you need to hire a great Chief People Officer.

I’ve found that great Chief People Officers do three things particularly well.

The most important characteristic or attribute of a great Chief People Officer is that they believe their function is strategic. In Startup CXO, Chief People Officer Cathy Hawley wrote about the ways HR/People can be a strategic function, and not just a tactical corporate function. It’s true of most functions, but for whatever reason (likely past experience), HR leaders frequently don’t view themselves or their functions as strategic, which is not only a huge missed opportunity, but may say something more important about the confidence level of the Chief People Officer. If that’s their frame of reference, then they’ll likely be tactical managers. They’ll keep the trains running on time, but you won’t be able to anticipate the changing talent landscape, much less be strategic about it. On the other hand, if they believe they can move the needle on the business by improving engagement, productivity, and efficiency, if they believe they can make the executive team more effective by helping you with team facilitation and coaching… they can do anything.

A second important characteristic of the successful Chief People Officer is courage—a great CPO has the courage to call you (the CEO) out directly and firmly when they see you doing or saying anything that’s a bit off. It could be around language, inclusion, values, authenticity, or anything else, but they don’t let it slide or ignore it. The CPO is a principal steward of the company’s values and culture. Even the best CEOs benefit from having a watchdog from time to time.

A third critical trait of a great Chief People Officer is that they think about investment in People in terms of ROI. It’s one thing to run a killer recruiting function and fill seats efficiently, with high quality, as asked. It’s an entirely different thing to start the recruiting process by asking if the role is needed, at that level and compensation band, or whether there are other people, fractional workers, contractors, or shifts in lower-value activities that could be put to work instead. Only a head of People with a deep understanding of the business can transform the function from a gatekeeper/”no” role into a business accelerator.

A great Chief People Officer is all of these things—strategic, courageous, and financially astute. Above all, great Chief People Officers know that they are the role model within a company and that their behavior, their language, and their inclusiveness sets the tone and provides a template for others to follow.

-Matt Blumberg, August 3, 2023.