What Great CHROs Know That Makes Them Great

Let’s set aside the obvious: Know the business. Build a great team. Cultivate relationships and respect with others on the leadership team. Understand the full HR suite of services.

All true. But, there is more to the story.

In our work, we have the opportunity to see many great Chief Human Resource Officers (CHROs) and VPs of HR up close. Yet, the real difference-making behaviors in the best of the best aren’t always the obvious.

Here is my list of the real lessons and behaviors that make the difference:

Expect and request tough choices

A client CHRO recently had a business transformation underway and a CEO with very high expectations. She was tackling a big list of priorities and creatively maximizing her team and resources to capacity. Yet, as more big requests came in, she confidently asked her CEO to discuss their two options: 1) increase resources and funding to take on the new initiatives, or 2) change expectations and reduce the number of priorities.

She got her funding. And, she didn’t let her past success create blinders for the future. As I watched her artfully handle what many would have viewed as a big challenge, I couldn’t help but think of those that would have gradually slid into a no-win situation, saddled with expectations that could never be met.

Talk outcome and business impact first – always

Many good HR leaders enter into strategy and business planning discussions only through the lens of HR initiatives, programs and policy. However, the best first engage on the desired business outcomes: What business results are we looking for? What must be achieved and by when? Have we considered … ? Then, offer insights on how to get there with a clear-eyed view of the must haves, the ideal timing and the opportunity. The HR decisions then follow.

Recently, a client HR/talent executive actively participated in this broader business discussion with the leadership team and then separately worked with his team on the HR implications. He didn’t use valuable time with the executive team to sort out what he could decide separately. Instead, he spent his energies upfront on agreeing business outcomes and gaining alignment on the direction.

Have a point of view

Research backs this up. I have never seen a respected HR executive who didn’t possess this ability in his or her own unique way. The point of view is based on informed intuition – a blend of information and insights that project what is needed now and in the future. When you add an ability to listen, a willingness to get smarter with new information and collaborate with others – this is a powerful and essential capability for any respected leader.

Comfortably and confidently think on your feet

I believe that comfort with ambiguity is today’s key leadership capability. In ambiguity and uncertainty, there are two levers to pull: reduce the ambiguity or increase your comfort with it. Top HR leaders know how to pull this off – which is part skill and part mindset.

The truth is you can’t always prepare your way into great results. You can read all of the reports, review the analysis, prepare for possible issues and still be surprised at the board meeting. This is even harder if you believe you must have the “right answer” before you engage.

Keep your mind on the impact you want to have, the problem you want to solve or the opportunity you want to grab. You show up differently when you focus on impact and not personal success. Decisions are rarely made without surprises or ambiguity. Get very comfortable with it.

Advise with strength and positive intent

The best CHRO’s proactively coach and advise other leaders on how to create positive business impact with their best interest in mind.

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Recently, a client CHRO observed that the COO had a habit of undermining previously agreed changes by broadly sharing his critiques. Without a request to do so, this CHRO met with the COO privately given her commitment to the business and his success. The CHRO coached the COO on the impact of his well known criticisms and helped him change his behavior.

Hire direct reports that elevate the CHRO role

This is beyond hiring smart people with potential who will represent you well. Smart HR executives always consider two important factors:

1) What are my knowledge and work style gaps that I need to fill?, and

2) Who do I need around me so that I can spend my time on the right things? 

The smart, strategic CHROs hire direct reports capable of translating strategies into actions that work. This balance ensures that the CHRO can be strategic and a true business leader.

Recently, a client VP of HR had the capability to be a respected, strategic leader and influencer. Yet, her direct reports created a gap she had to fill. They didn’t have the skills that allowed her to utilize her ability to make the impact she could have because she was pulled into tactics, processes and operational issues that a stronger team could have managed with just her guidance.

Leading the people strategy is different than leading the HR function

The best top HR leaders know that their role is to determine and guide the people strategy and execution that will realize the business strategy. This is much broader than leading a world class HR function. Yet, this world view will determine how you carry out your role and the impact that you will ultimately have. Don’t confuse the two.

Get the fundamentals right. But, remember that to be a top HR leader the intangibles will make the difference.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consulting firm she founded in 2004. She is the author of newly released "Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life." Patti and her team advise clients such as PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, Frito-Lay and many others on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Previously a Senior Executive at Accenture. Patti is an instructor on change for SMU Executive Education and for the Bush Institute Women’s Initiative, as well as a keynote speaker on change and leadership.

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