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Chief People Officer: in the spotlight

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Annual CPO Pathways Report 2022 Edition

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has focused attention on the People agenda, and the approach to people management, leadership and conduct is under the microscope across industry, from start-up, to multinational, in both private and public sector and, most recently of course, in government.

In 2020, many HR practitioners found themselves working in new ways to answer new questions amid the complexities presented by both Covid-19 and Brexit. And while both issues continue to present HR with new challenges every day, most recently events in Ukraine have meant ever more complex socio-economic, ethical and moral decisions are being played out on the world stage.

In essence, the issues the function is tackling now in many cases simply didn’t exist two or three years ago.

An additional layer of scrutiny comes from the fact that we live in a social media age, where what would have previously been considered small missteps or ‘internal people decisions’ are played out on the world stage and have the potential to cause exponential damage to both customer and employee reputation.  The media storms around free school meals, ‘no jab, no job’ and office presenteeism mandates, to name a few, have increased the public profile of a function that still, so often, feels the need to talk about how to secure a ‘seat at the table’.

The last two years have demonstrated the power of a strong People and Culture function to so many businesses, and this has now come into even more of a sharp relief due to the war in Ukraine.  Against this backdrop, the focus on the role of Chief People Officer has intensified, with  a heavy responsibility to lead the organisation’s approach to people risk and reputation.

This role will need to craft a people proposition that stacks up in a world of hybrid working, increased focus on wellbeing and inclusion, and in a highly competitive global talent market.

Given this heightened profile of the CPO, and following the success of our analysis of the most common pathway to CFO last year, we wanted to shine a light on this critical role. Our CPO Pathways report explores the most common routes to becoming a Chief People Officer. Produced in collaboration with leading global data company, BoardEx, we analysed data on over 1000 UK appointments to Chief People Officer between 2019-2021.

In it, we look to answer the following questions:

  1. Where do CPOs come from, and how the route to become a CPO?
  2. Does sector experience really matter?
  3. Should I hire a CPO from the external market, or appoint from within?
  4. Does gender and/or age play a part?
  5. How do I get into Private Equity as a CPO?
  6. Are CPOs finally getting a seat at the boardroom table?

As part of the research, I spoke to a number of Chief People Officers within my network to hear their response to the insights from the report and reflections on their own paths to CPO:

Whilst the data offers some insight into the typical pathway for many CPOs, I’m pleased to say my own path was different.
My first HRD position was an internal promotion, with my next career moves being to larger or more complex organisations across multiple sectors (PE and privately owned) alongside CEOs who recognised my transferrable skills.

Sharon Benson, former Chief People Officer, Sunrise Senior Living

My own journey started in the area of Performance and Reward and I then moved to my first HRD role within the same organisation.As the data suggests, my personal experience would reinforce that it is easier to move from a specialist role to generalist/HRD role within the same organisation, rather than making that shift from a specialist role externally. I was surprised to see the relatively low proportion of moves across sector in this data, as I am a firm believer that HR skills are absolutely transferable across industries, not least because more and more organisations are looking for fresh and new perspectives to lead through a period of transformation and ambiguity. In my view, being focussed on building diverse and complementary teams is another way to navigate today’s complex and extremely dynamic work environment.

Shweta Bhasin, Chief People Officer, General Assembly

The improvement in gender diversity for the HR function is a double-edged sword in that it may constrain a much needed rebalancing in overall female representation at Board level.More concerning to me, is that whilst Executives profess that the CPO role is more important than ever, the CPO seat at the Board table is in decline. Companies that play lip service to this role in a turbulent world will pay the price in reduced competitiveness and employee loyalty.As a CPO with a cross-sector background, I have found that the transferable nature of the HR skillset equips CPOs better than most to adapt quickly to and thrive in new commercial contexts. What the world needs now more than ever is leaders who are adept at pulling on a diversity of experience to tackle the unprecedented and highly nuanced challenges in business today.

Paul Cutler, Chief People Officer, Lucid Group

Personally, I am looking forward to monitoring this data over time, and understanding how trends continue and evolve over the next few years. Like any journey in life, there is clearly no one way to move into a Chief People Officer role, and I am privileged to help businesses of all sizes in the UK and internationally, to navigate the evolving world of the People Function, sourcing the best talent, with the most relevant experience to drive their organisations forward.

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.**