The modern CHRO holds one of the most difficult positions in the C-suite. You have to possess a deep understanding of the business that’s on par with your executive peers. You need to be able to influence and guide the CEO as a trusted advisor on all things people. You must grasp the nuance of your business and strategic plan so that you can align your people strategy for where you are today and where you’re going over the next several years. All while overseeing the company’s most volatile asset — its people.
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Add to this external factors like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and social justice, political and geopolitical change, generational shifts, technological change and more, and it’s a wonder the people in these roles find time for sleep. The expectations on modern people executives are massive. That’s one of the reasons the tenures are declining and the number of vacancies seems to climb each year.
It’s a hard job. It’s a lonely job. You often deal with some of the most traumatic experiences humans face — death, divorce, disease, loss, dishonesty, and more. You also rarely have internal support networks where you can talk about all of the above. That pressure can be incredibly isolating. It takes a special skill set and ability to navigate these waters.
You’re also under tremendous pressure from the business and your C-suite peers to make an impact — quickly. Michael DeAngelo is the former chief people officer at Mozilla. He’s an experienced people leader, with past HR executive roles with Pinterest, Google, Pepsico, Microsoft, and others. He weighed in on the importance of developing your onboarding plan during a podcast I’d done with him:
Be very clear about your plan and take the time to understand the organization before acting. You’re going to get pressure to make key decisions. Your team’s going to be asking you to do things that have been holding for 6 to 12 months. As a new CPO, the best thing you can do and explain to your team is to convey that it’s really important you learn here first.
You need to understand before being understood. You want to get the culture. You want to understand the history and you need to understand what the background is for problems and the things we need to go fix, because that’s what’s going to help us make the most progress. You have to have a mindset of “what is the client’s first need?” You may think that this flashy thing would give you the fastest start, but if that is not what the clients think is broken, it’s going to actually impede your progress.
Start with what they’re asking you to do, and then, once you get credibility there, they’re going to give you permission to do things that are more progressive.
HR executives arrive with an immediate slate of problems to fix. You’re expected to quickly get up to speed on a range of variables, including culture (strengths and risks), talent, marketing positioning, business model, growth plans, what’s working well, what must be fixed, and a lot more.
If you jump into fix mode before you have a firm grasp of these variables, you can create even more problems. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, 70% of new executives cited a poor grasp of how their organization works as a stumbling block for effective onboarding. Getting aligned with your executive peers is essential to setting yourself up for success. Part of this is managing the expectations of the CEO, as Credit Karma Chief People Officer Colleen McCreary explains:
There are a lot of start-up CEOs who think the talent part is easy. I laugh at the number of start-up CEOs I’ve met where they will say to me, “Wow, all of my problems are around people and leaders and I feel like I have to do their jobs and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Then literally the next sentence will be, “But I don’t really need to hire any super senior HR person. I just need somebody that can help a little bit.”
Do they even understand what came out of their mouth? It’s hard not to laugh. I think it’s that investment in the entire employee experience. It’s understanding that the investment in cultivating the culture, processes, and tools that align with the vision that the company’s espousing is hard and expensive. It does take a lot of people to do that really well.
The rapport and connection between the CEO and the CPO are key — particularly when it comes to building healthy and scalable cultures. If you’re ever interviewing for a people executive job and are told you’ll be owning the culture, you should thank them for the clue and run away. Fast. You can’t win there.
If, however, you find a leader who truly values, prioritizes, and resources what it takes to build a healthy culture — that’s a different story. Leaders who can balance and co-prioritize building a healthy business and building a healthy culture are the ones who tend to have the best cultures and most impactful people teams. Asana Head of People Anna Binder explains:
There are three different ways to think about the people-related or culture-related work. For CEOs, there’s a range of focus areas pulling their attention — trying to get products market fit, trying to get a product to market, or trying to get from 5 to 20 million in revenue. Some feel they can’t really focus on culture and values and people. They have to focus on these things and fundraising. They view that people stuff as a distraction. They’re going to outsource that, either to a head of people or to somebody else.
Then there’s the other type of CEO who says, “You know what, it’s not a distraction. We can actually balance the two. We can spend time building the business, and we can spend some time building the culture.” This balance is truer today than ever. It is 100% true at Asana.
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One of the reasons I’m thriving here is that Asana rejects the concept that there needs to be a tradeoff between building business and building culture. It is actually your investment in culture, and your commitment to defining and making the values real, that will drive your business success and ultimately enable you to achieve your mission. It’s not either/or, it’s not balancing the two. It is actually that investing in your culture ultimately drives your business success.
One of the big evolutions for me in the role is that shift in perception on the work of culture-building and the culture evolving that has driven that change. It’s not the sole role of the CPO. It’s an all-team sport.
At Asana, I experience it at the board level where they want to know what we’re doing to evolve our culture. If you look at our weekly leadership team meeting, I would say 50% of the topics are either people- or culture-related. Every employee here feels they are participating in evolving the culture. My job is as an orchestrator of that. I never feel that I’m in a room by myself thinking about culture.
When culture building is viewed as a shared responsibility across the organization, magic happens. The co-ownership of culture is a core ingredient in high-performing companies and cultures. It permeates through the leadership team into the employees and is reinforced through daily behaviors. Culture can’t be pushed by individual(s) — it must be a collective set of shared values, expectations, and behaviors.
The business complexity that modern HR leaders must navigate in today’s world is much more robust. Michael DeAngelo considers this here:
The field is much more complicated now. The business environment is much more complicated. It’s constantly moving. The pace of change is super-fast. Much faster than I remember 10 years ago. There’s a lot of consolidation in particular companies. The difficulty of companies trying to compete and stand out is changing very quickly and you have to continue to differentiate. In technology companies you’re constantly being disrupted. There’s a lot more stress in the system for people and everyone from top to bottom in the organization, and that’s a big challenge.
As a CPO, we worry about capabilities a lot more now. Do you have the capabilities to compete? Not just in the current business model you have, but the next one you’re planning on, because you’re going to get disrupted.
As Michael explains, the ability for modern people executives to navigate this complexity is essential to their success. You have to have an eye on what’s now and what’s next to successfully lead your company and your teams through today’s complex world.
Excerpted from Redefining HR: Transforming People Teams to Drive Business Performance by Lars Schmidt. ©2021. Reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.