First-time chief people officers: A guide from current to future chief people officers
Human Resources Officers

First-time chief people officers: A guide from current to future chief people officers

The chief people officer (CPO) report outlines the step changes that people face when they get into the CPO role, some of which they may previously have considered, and others that fall far outside their sphere of experience.

The main themes emerging from our interviews are: 

  • As CPO, you are now part of running the business. Sitting on the executive committee, working with the remuneration committee, reporting to the board, and building relationships with the chair and CEO are all significant steps up from the responsibilities of the HR director.
  • The realization that you’re on your own can be countered by establishing networks, finding sounding boards, and shaping your own personal leadership style. Integrity, authenticity, identity, and courage all count here.
  • Leading the HR function also means letting go of running it on a day-to-day basis. Formulating and instigating the HR strategy is a broader role and requires wider business skills and the ability to get the organization’s leadership onside.
  • The breadth of the role is big and getting bigger. It is commercial, political, strategic, personal, and varies from business to business. To succeed you must have the Board’s ear, the Executive Committee’s ear, and your ear to the ground.
  • The role is both internal and external. All the business’s stakeholders are also your stakeholders. You need to understand their priorities, whether they’re shareholders, customers, employees or regulating bodies. These priorities are entwined with ESG issues, and you have to own these, as well as the future of work and the impact of technology.
  • The expertise you have is essential. The expertise you don’t yet have is myriad. It will need to include the P&L position, what makes the business money, and how investors assess the business. Study finance for non-finance people, work hard to get up to speed, ask questions and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers.
  • Identifying business trends before other members of the executive committee and bringing them into the commercial conversation, outlining the risks, opportunities, and implications of ESG issues is now a key part of the role.

The CPO role has a complete, holistic view of the business. The quest for competitive advantage runs through everything the CPO does. For future-focused chief executives, hiring the right CPO is a commercial imperative. Their work impacts all of the people in the organization, not just the HR function. It’s a business risk if the hire is wrong, and without a good fit in the role, business opportunities will be missed.

Similarly, those with ambitions to be a CPO need to find a position that aligns with their motivations, and sense of purpose, and which will set them up for success. By understanding the breadth of the CPO’s remit, and how much the role differs within different organizations, you will be better placed to find your fit—whether it’s a multinational, a group FTSE 1000 CPO role, a FTSE 250, or an agile, emerging business establishing its C-suite.

By doing your due diligence into the requirements of the job, you will find the right culture, the right goals, the right CEO, and ultimately the right CHFO role for you.

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About the Author

Rachel Farley ( is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the European Human Resources Officers Practice.

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