As organisations continue to recognise the pivotal role of people to their success as well as the continued focus on ESG and sustainability, the role and positioning of a CEO is shifting. According to a recent study by Gartner, the focus on workforce (attraction, development, assessment and promotion) is now consistently recognised as one of, if not the, most important priorities for their organisation over the next few years. Another key topic highlighted is taking clear action to focus on sustainability.
In the corporate leadership landscape, few transitions are as inspiring and noteworthy as the journey from a Chief People Officer (CPO) to a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) which is why Louis was so intrigued to sit down with Chris Norbury who has recently made this transition to hear about his insight and experience. Given the shift in priorities for organisations, could this path from CPO to CEO be one we see more in the future?
Chris Norbury was appointed CEO of leading energy provider E.ON UK in June 2023, a promotion from his previous position of CPO. Louis Henry, Associate Partner in our Human Resources Executive Search Practice, caught up with Chris to discuss both his path to CEO, and E.ON’s journey of continued transformation against a dramatically shifting backdrop in the way the world thinks about, and consumes, energy.
Louis Henry (LH): Firstly, Chris thank you so much being part of this conversation and congratulations on your appointment to CEO. How have the first few months been?
Chris Norbury (CN): The first few months have been fantastic. In some respects, there is a benefit to being an internal appointment. The business and people aren’t new to me. I’ve been part of the board in the UK business for five and a half years (Chris was appointed E. ON UK CPO in 2018) and I have benefitted from the relationships that I’ve built, but there is a different lens you have to apply as CEO.
LH: Coming from the CPO role, you already had a good understanding of the business; what other factors do you believe may have helped you be successful in selection for the CEO role?
CN: There is a relevance in the skillset and experience which come from leading as a CPO. If you want to execute the strategy around investment in energy efficiency and help customers decarbonise their consumption, the people and capability elements are critical. There are huge skill shortages and capability gaps in the UK – addressing the climate crisis will be a hotspot for talent because that’s the number one challenge facing our society. So, there is a direct relevance to what I have done before and the skillset I bring.
I spent over 20 years in HR and transformation roles for major international organisations which required an openness of mind and gave me the ability to see the breadth of the organisation. Much of my career has been about transformation and change, and in a world where the market is extremely volatile, this is going be a constant cycle. It will be about continually leading change and that’s a skillset I can bring.
LH: How did you prepare for the transition to CEO?
CN: I’ve found that the best way to manage your own career journey is by creating a balance of adding value whilst also learning from it. My job as a CPO was to enable other people to be successful, and my job now is to enable other people to be successful, so in that respect, there is no change.
Approaching the CEO job, there are many things I believe to be important, but I cannot do them all myself. You have to focus on the things that matter; it’s about understanding and identifying what are the things that only I can do, and where I can empower the team. Listening to people, getting their views, and seeking advice is hugely important.
It’s easier than you’d imagine stepping away from the CPO responsibilities as I understand them already; there are lots of other areas where I am still learning and need to invest my time and energy.
LH: E.ON’s first half results were good, but there are still enduring issues within the UK economy – how is this affecting you?
CN: The economic environment for our customers is hugely important; energy is at the forefront of many people’s minds in terms of affordability. Energy is central for some of the immediate challenges we have as a society, as well as in the long-term in addressing the climate crisis that confronts us.
Our first half results were very strong – on the one hand that’s a testament to the work done on transforming the business. We were heavily loss-making in 2019 and we’ve lost money in our UK residential supply business in four out of the last five years. Also, some of the things driving the results are unique to this year; there is an element of cost recovery in the regulated part of our business for costs we incurred last year as a consequence of the energy crisis. That won’t we be a recurring theme next year – we remain a low margin business.
If you look ahead, it’s essential that we use the platform of the turnaround in the business to then be able to grow the business in the UK. We will do this by doing two things – investing in energy efficiency to make energy more affordable for our customers, and investing in energy independence for our customers to give them agency and control. As a consequence of doing that, we take carbon out of the economy and create skilled jobs for people in the UK.
LH: The market has evolved, the position of HR has become more strategic – leading people, connecting and driving change management. How are you going to lead? What can you bring from your CPO experience?
CN: Whilst in the CPO position, I delivered a successful digital transformation. The next priority on my agenda as CEO s is again, at its heart, a digital transformation; how we use data, how we help customers use data. The way of working, the agility and mindset you must have as an organisation to effect a digital transformation still holds good.
We need to be a provider of physical and digital assets and services that enable our customers to be more energy efficient, decarbonise, and create good jobs as a consequence. We do some of this now, but we are still to some extent, in both our P&L and heart, a supplier of a commodity. How do we transition and grow? That’s the journey we’ve got to go on. I am confident we will grow and deliver for our customers – I’m looking forward to the journey and seeing that come to life.
LH: You have a philosophy that the journey is as important as the vision, and that there are different ways to achieve success in a corporate environment. This is an inspiring and interesting stance. What about your journey for the rest of this year – what does the remainder of 2023 hold for you?
CN: We are coming into the medium-term planning cycle and it’s the first one since the recent turnaround has been completed. We have to develop a plan for the next four years that reflects the ambition and aspiration to grow the business. We need to think about how we do that in a way that recognises we are in a super volatile world. We will need to be really agile – the ability to adjust and flex will be important. Also, this is an operational business; there are five or six key priorities to focus on between now and the end of this year to make sure that the results we deliver at the end of the year are just as good as the results we delivered at the half year, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
LH: Thank you Chris for this fascinating insight into the move from CPO to CEO. There is no doubt in my mind that HR leaders bring a strong skillset to bear for the shifting CEO role and I’m looking forward to seeing how this trend evolves.
Eton Bridge Partners have a strong track record of acting as trusted advisors to executive boards from a wide range of organisations; from PE-backed to FTSE listed.
Please get in touch with Louis to continue the conversation.
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