Chief People Officer: Seat at the Table, or Just Trendy Title Inflation?

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Jun 16, 2010

I don’t know about you, but the title “Chief People Officer” gives me a headache.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the premise — that a real, honest-to-goodness C-level title helps put an organization’s top HR leader, and the critical importance of talent management, on the same footing as the CFO, COO and other high-level executives — it’s just that as titles go, it feels trendy and sounds odd.

To me, it’s all about the person holding the title and what kind of work they’re doing regardless of title. I’m sure there are highly strategic, C-level type executives with a Vice President or Senior Vice President for Human Resources title, and others with the label Chief People Officer who are process-oriented and not really C-Suite material.

In other words, the title “Chief People Officer” is all about that highly coveted seat-at-the-table that so many HR leaders have been arguing about for years on end. And if that’s the REAL issue, then the title the top HR person gets in an organization is probably a pretty big deal.

This topic has been on my mind because National Public Radio (NPR) just named a new Chief People Officer, and the explanation NPR’s spokesperson gave for the title change sounded, well, a little squishy to me.

So, I asked some prominent HR executives what they thought about this, specifically, “Does the title Chief People Officer make any sense?” They had some interesting things to say:

  • From Bill Rothenbach, Senior Vice President-Human Resources at Old Mutual Financial Network : “I think it is just another attempt (in a long line of attempts) by the Human Resources function to “re-define” itself and hopefully increase its perceived relevance in the organization. By the way, ‘progressive organizations’ don’t designate the CHRO position as Chief People Officer and then have it report to the CFO!”
  • From Jennifer McClure, Vice President and executive recruiter at Centennial, Inc. : “In my opinion, there’s room for a Chief People Office or Chief Human Resources Officer job title in order to signify that a person is part of the C-Suite. Being an SVP of HR or even EVP when others on the exec team are CEO, COO, CFO, etc. means that internal and external contacts won’t see the position at the same level as other officers of the company and certainly being an actual Officer of the company makes a difference in terms of decision-making and responsibility.

“In the NPR example, including the VP of HR title along with the CPO is a mistake. It’s confusing and appears that they are just applying the title for looks and to appear ‘hip’ (as the article about NPR suggests). If there are no other C-level titles in the organization, then this person shouldn’t have one either. If there are others – and they report to the CEO along with this person – if the responsibilities warrant a position with the same level of responsibility as the COO or CFO, then they should remove the VP title altogether.”

  • From Sue Meisinger, Director at the National Academy of Human Resources and former President and CEO of SHRM: “This subject reminds me of the debate more than 20 years ago when ASPA was deciding whether to change its name from ‘Personnel’ to ‘Human Resources.’ It was almost a theological debate within the organization, and frankly, it drove me nuts. I thought the real challenge was to get away from the ‘A’ – Administration — in the ASPA title.

“I have a similar view with titles. What matters is what the person does, not what they’re called. Time and energy spent on arguing to get a change in title is time and energy that could be better targeted on adding value.

“Sometimes, however, organizations change titles to signal a change in approach, and that’s what it sounds like with NPR. Chief People Officer has become more common, but so has Chief Human Capital Officer or VP of Organizational Transformation. NPR just picked one. I honestly don’t think the title matters — but if a title change is made to signal a change in approach, and nothing else changes, I think the function can lose a lot of credibility. When change actually happens, the time and effort that goes into re-titling is well spent. I just don’t think the actual title is critical to anything.”

  • From Ron Thomas, former Vice President Human Resources and Organizational Development at Martha Stewart Living: “I agree wholeheartedly about the new title reflecting a more progressive organization. With people being the most important asset, this should be a C-level position. It sends a great message not only throughout the organization but in the industry as well. I sure hope that (NPR’s new hire) is a people person because that is key.

“Now that said, if this role were of the importance that they claim, then this person should report directly to the CEO. That is where the culture transformation should begin. If finance and marketing were to hire a C-level person, you can rest assured that they would report directly to the CEO.

“Until that happens you can change the title to whatever and you may move the needle some, but to have a huge impact on the role, it has to go there.”