Group of businessperson and technology concept.

Chief People Officer: an evolving role

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As part of my recent research, into the most common pathway to reaching a Chief People Officer role,  I asked a number of Chief People Officers within my network for their response to the insights from the report, their reflections on their own paths to CPO, and how they view the role evolving over the short to medium term. It seems clear that everyone’s path is unique but that the role is changing rapidly:

Prior sector experience seems to be becoming more important, rather than less. Without exception, everyone I spoke to felt that HR experience should be the most transferable Boardroom skill, and were surprised at this finding, although also agreed that their own experiences of attempting career moves correlated in many circumstances with this data.

Had I known earlier how much my experiences would cause me to be pigeonholed when exploring future opportunities, I would have definitely made different career choices.

Chief People Officer, Technology business

The experience and background of the Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Finance Officer influence risk appetite when hiring a Chief People Officer, impacting out of sector moves, and the opportunities for first time role-holders. Our research shows that CFOs are much more likely to be hired from out of sector, and perhaps it is this driving the relative importance of sector knowledge in CPO appointments?

The Chief People Officer role is evolving to include much, or sometimes all, of the ESG agenda. Many in my network see this broadening of the HR agenda as adding weight to the importance of the role itself, while conversely for others, the inclusion of ESG in the People strategy itself adds Board focus to the ESG agenda within an organisation, especially for employees themselves. With many investors actively concerned with the sustainability of a business, including long-term talent and workforce planning, I wonder whether all Chief People Officers have realised the power of this wider agenda and embraced the opportunities presented by leading on ESG? It does also pose the question of whether Chief People Officers have the right skills to drive this investor agenda:

We are actively looking at ESG as part of our investment strategy, and interestingly [we see that] the role of the Chief People Officer is becoming ever more externally facing as a result.

Chief People Officer, investment business

It might be surprising to some that it is not more common for a Reward Leader to move into the Chief People Officer seat. Reward has a unique relationship with the board through Remco, relationships with investors, the company secretary, and corporate finance, compared with its counterparts in HR. We are aware of brilliant CPOs who have spent time in Reward who believe that their background in Reward set them up for success in the CPO role, however, it appears that the limited view from the Reward path means that it is unlikely to be a purist Reward leader who ultimately moves into a CPO seat:

Reward leadership roles set me up well for a transition to Chief People Officer roles. In particular: the great grasp of people data analytics that reward roles provide is so essential to modern Chief People Officer roles; the experience, exposure, and confidence dealing with PLC Boards, investors, and corporate governance; and a secure understanding of how big businesses function in terms of strategy, the essential metrics, performance indicators, and financials.

Chief People Officer, Brambles.

Building the future workforce

What is undeniable is that every business is facing a talent shortage, whether because of a lack of specific skills or simply the right volume of people in the right place at the right cost. Chief People Officers I talked to in the course of my research realise that their roles are becoming talent creators, driving longer-term succession planning internally and building programmes to develop especially scarce skills within the existing employee population, rather than buying these skills at a premium on the external market. Programmes designed to increase socio-economic diversity and opportunity are having excellent impact, but all too often this in on too small a scale to really impact the longer-term outcomes for a business. I have also heard broad agreement that the education system in the UK just isn’t built to deliver the workforce of the future, and so Chief People Officers need to be planning for the long term to inform, educate and ultimately attract their future workforce.


Technology – a challenge and an opportunity

Finally, technology in all its forms popped up as part of my qualitative discussions, whether investing in the technology inside a business, enabling the People function to make informed, insightful decisions, attracting technology talent to an unlikely home, or identifying the implications of leading in a hybrid world where balancing leadership and humanity may be more difficult. Everyone I spoke to identified technology as a key challenge for both the role and the wider function, playing directly to the core elements of culture and transformation that should sit at the heart of the Chief People Officer role.


To read the full report, follow this link.

**For the purposes of this report, the term ‘Chief People Officer’ or ‘CPO’ includes any and all variations of that job title, including but not limited to, Chief Human Resources Officer, Group HR Director, HR Director, People Director, and is intended to cover all executive leadership positions within the People Function.**