By Jessica Yuen
Three years ago, Harvard Business Review’s Summer 2015 issue’s cover title was “It’s time to blow up HR” with a main article on “Rethinking Human Resources.” In the same year, former Google People Ops leader Laszlo Bock published his book Work Rules. These ignited a discussion about transforming the HR function. Indeed, there has been rethinking, especially at the top — even the job title of Chief HR Officer (CHRO) has been rethought, with “Chief People Officer” (CPO) a popular choice to emphasize the focus on people instead of resources, and some companies selecting alternatives like AirBnB’s title “Chief Employee Experience Officer” that further emphasizes an employee-centric focus.
To better understand what’s changed about the role in the last three years (in addition to the title), I spoke with those at the heart of the action: top talent search firms who place People leaders at fast-growth private companies. At the crux of their jobs, Scott Kehoe at Launch Search Partners, Emily Lewis-LaMonica at True Search, and John Anderson at Allegis Partners, work with CEOs and executives to define their ideal People leaders.
A new strategic leader
Whether it’s new employment models (remote work, gig economy), HR tech and analytics, diversity and inclusion, career development, or something else, evolving trends in the HR landscape are demanding a new, more strategic (and less back office) approach to HR.
While previous requirements still exist, this role is now primarily described as a strategic one, reporting directly to the CEO with a seat at the executive table. In fact, Kehoe notes that when seeking the best candidates, the role has to report directly to the CEO. No longer is it a tactical back office function but more and more, search firms are being asked to find People leaders who can be business partners and key decision makers in company wide strategy and operations. Anderson reflected, “CEOs are looking for business generalists (vs previously HR generalists) — someone who is a varsity player on the team and can lead the team in a strategic way, someone who will lend their voice and expertise to other functions. It’s a “Don’t stay in your lane” role now.”
People leaders are expected to understand the company strategy and connect it to talent strategy. “If your next frontier is say, Natural Language Processing,” explains Lewis-LaMonica, “then your CPO is helping the leadership think through how that impacts the company’s approach to recruiting, onboarding, developing, incentivizing, and retaining NLP talent, and then start to prepare them to do so.”
Business acumen is the key differentiator
Companies are now targeting candidates with business expertise from outside HR. Ten years ago, Sheryl Sandberg hired marketing leader Lori Goler at Facebook to lead their People function. Lori’s successful journey led other companies to select People leaders from outside the traditional pipeline including Jacqueline Reses at Square whose background is in Corporate Development + Investing, Robby Kwok at Slack from Corporate & Business Development, and Eileen Naughton at Google from Sales. In Anderson’s article, “The Chief People Officer as the New Business Executive”, he outlines 7 key qualities of CPOs — business acumen tops his list. In fact, Anderson, Kehoe, and Lewis-LaMonica all cited business acumen as the key differentiator for a CPO candidate today.