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Can an HR interim career help you land that first Chief People Officer role?

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Drawing on findings from our recent CPO Pathways report, Liz Skakel, Associate Partner in the Human Resources Interim Management Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, explores how an HR interim career can provide a platform for the move to a Chief People Officer appointment.


Read the full report here

Within our HR practice, one question we are often asked by candidates is how to build a career that ultimately leads to a Chief People Officer position. Our annual CPO Pathways report, produced by Eton Bridge Partners together with BoardEx, seeks to answer that question through the in-depth analysis of over 2,500 recent Chief People Officer appointments across the UK and Europe. The report provides insights into the Chief People Officer market and examines the criteria that sit behind a successful appointment.

So how is the interim market relevant to this discussion? An interim career shouldn’t necessarily just be seen as a great opportunity for growth for those choosing to leave a permanent career, or those who find themselves immediately available. It can also be a valuable route to reframe expertise, to build skillsets and also to grow networks. At Eton Bridge Partners, we have seen that maximising a couple of years in the interim market can help to increase attractiveness and suitability for a Chief People Officer role in the permanent market.


Sector and ownership structure experience are key to CPO hiring decision making

Our research suggests an upwards ongoing trend in overall volumes of Chief People Officer hiring, with 2021 seeing a particularly large uptick. This is possibly as a result of ongoing people challenges that most sectors are encountering. The most common career background for a Chief People Officer role is as a Generalist, although expertise in Talent, Culture and more recently Employee Relations can also carry weight in hiring discussions.

Our Pathways report suggested an increase in same-sector hires with around 70% of Chief People Officers joining from organisations in the same sector; up markedly from 2020 where this figure stood at just over 50%.

Another key finding was that the majority of Chief People Officer appointments were drawn from candidates who came from the same ownership model. Less than 10% of Chief People Officer appointments involved a move from a publicly listed organisation to a private equity business; this was down from 13% in 2021. A move from a private company to a private equity business was more common, but the lion’s share of Chief People Officer appointments within private equity were of candidates already in that sphere.


HR interim experience can help position a strategic pathway to CPO

Given the evidence that Chief People Officer appointments can be driven by specific sector and ownership structure experience, interim roles provide an excellent opportunity to gain the relevant credentials. They also offer the potential to significantly expand a network of contacts, which can lead to being more prominently positioned on the radar when permanent Chief People Officer roles arise. Chosen wisely, interim roles can enhance a CV, shift a career pathway and position a candidate for a successful move into a permanent Chief People Officer position.

In illustration, an HR professional who comes from a publicly listed organisation and is focused on a move into a Chief People Officer role within a private equity business may well be competing with candidates with prior experience of working within the private equity space. In this scenario it is likely that a lack of private equity experience is a disadvantage. However, if that individual had the critical exposure to having worked for a period of time in the interim market working within private equity, it is feasible that it would put them in a far stronger position.

Another example could be a Chief People Officer candidate who aspires to build experience in the Talent function; a stint delivering a Talent-focused project as an interim can boost credentials and increase the candidate’s appeal. Equally, an interim job title won’t be the draw to an opportunity and sometimes even a title you may not wish to take in the permanent market, but the remit provides the chance to gain different sector or ownership experience. It’s about taking the opportunity to maximise experiences as an interim to progress your career in its broadest sense.


Taking the plunge: so, what makes a good interim manager?

The good news is that the interim manager market is buoyant. Data from the International Network of Interim Manager Associations (INIMA) suggests the use of interim managers in the UK jumped by 16% in 2021 as the market rebounded after the pandemic. The Institute of Interim Management (IIM) echoed the positive sentiment in its own survey. ‘2021/22 has been a year of turnaround for the profession and our market. Lockdowns are behind us – at least for now – IR35 in the private and third sectors is being got to grips with.’

At Eton Bridge Partners, we are seeing a particularly strong demand for interims across many different types of organisations; driven by the need to add functional leadership capability and provide support in significantly transformative environments. Further positive news is that prior interim experience is not always a prerequisite for landing an interim role – instead, hiring managers look for evidence of strong change management skills and the ability to work and deliver to a defined scope.

The key is being able to market yourself successfully and demonstrate a delivery focus. For example, a Generalist HR professional in the permanent market who has recently delivered on a talent management programme would be a potential fit for an interim remit focussed on talent.

At Eton Bridge Partners, our experience has taught us that there are as many pathways to Chief People Officer, as there are Chief People Officers – each hiring decision rests on a unique set of experience, networks, and skills. The interim market may be one pathway well worth considering; with the right approach the rewards could be great.

If you would like to talk in more detail about interim opportunities or our experiences in sourcing Chief People Officers, please do get in touch as we are always delighted to hear your thoughts and share our experiences.