10 Things Founders Need To Do When Recruiting for a Chief People Officer

As People team leaders and advisors, Rebecca Price and Emma Guidarelli have seen the approaches that set up startups for excellent relationships with this make-or-break function.

10 Things Founders Need To Do When Recruiting for a Chief People Officer10 Things Founders Need To Do When Recruiting for a Chief People Officer

This article was written in collaboration with Emma Guidarelli.

So your startup raised money and is getting ready to grow—fast. Seasoned founders will tell you now is the time to invest in people, and a great Head of People is often your best bet for getting this important work done correctly.

In our time leading People teams—Emma as Head of People at Mixlab and as CEO and Founder of her own consultancy People Function, Rebecca as Chief People Officer at Enigma and now as an Operating Partner supporting early-stage startups at Primary—we’ve learned that our ability to make an impact and our interest in continuing to work at the company was inextricably linked to the company’s Founder and CEO. Looking back on our best moments and our most challenging ones, we’ve realized that other founders recruiting for a Head of People may benefit from the lessons we learned having personally been through the recruiting process many times.

CEOs and Founders—during the recruiting process you should:

  1. Hire for your needs: A common mistake is that Companies bring on their Chief People Officer or senior people leader when the work that exists today is still highly tactical. The work you envision this leader to take on in the future might be to create groundbreaking employee programs and processes, but if today’s work is all blocking and tackling and very little strategic building, you may want to consider leveling the role down to a Manager or Director.
  2. Don’t sell: Founders are inherently charismatic sellers. They sell investors on their vision, customers and clients on their products and services (oftentimes even before they are built), and employees on the promise of outcomes and opportunities. When a founder sells a vision for a role that fundamentally doesn’t exist today, and won’t for quite some time, that leader is likely to churn out. A Head of People leaving can send detrimental signals to the organization, even if the churn is healthy. This is avoidable if you paint a realistic picture for the role, and find the person who is attracted to that role.
  3. Differentiate: Why is your culture or your product dramatically different from all the others? The right people leader for you will align with you, your leaders, and the quirks of the organization. Lean into those differences—what makes this role so different, so special, and specifically exciting?
  4. Be realistic: Great Heads of People are both operational and strategic, but they are not magic. People are engaged in, retained by, and work for their managers and the company—not HR. Ask yourself why you are hiring your Head of People. Are you looking to them to be a silver bullet and solve problems outside the scope of their role and the realm of possibility?
  5. Don’t overpromise: CEOs and Founders make promises every day that they work very hard to keep. However making those promises to a Head of People candidate and not being able to keep them could fatally damage the working relationship. For example, promises about the speed at which you plan to grow your employee population or about the size of the team that they will be able to hire can fundamentally change the shape of this role. Once again, overselling or mischaracterizing current challenges can lead to fast turnover in that position.
  6. Don’t use buzzwords: Every startup needs a ninja and thinks they are a disruptive rocketship. Real talk: A founder once told me that Sheryl Sandberg didn’t ask what seat she was going to sit in the rocket ship at Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg asked her to join, she just got on. Generic buzzwords and analogies are a huge turnoff to seasoned people leaders who are used to these words not being backed up by anything. Show your candidate that there is substance!

And then once you have hired your Head of People:

  1. Trust your leader and listen: You’re hiring for this role because you’ve identified an area of opportunity, something that you’re missing. Trust the expertise that comes in. Your new hire will have some feedback you might not love, but those things have validity even though they are difficult to hear.
  2. Be authentic: Lean into your weaknesses and be open about them. Your Head of People can help you counterbalance or overcome them, but only if you are open and honest.
  3. Lead from the front: A common misconception is that a Head of People should be the one having all of the hard conversions around feedback, performance, compensation, and change. This will lead to failure to create important cultural change, burnout from your people leader, and a coercive culture. As the leader, your employees want you to lead from the front; they want to see that behavior modeled by you.
  4. Don't under invest in the function: The best way to set this role up for success is to keep your People leader out of the day-to-day weeds. Your Head of People should be the most senior HR business partner to the CEO and the leadership team and should manage people in the function running key processes, like recruiting, HR business partnering, performance management, leadership development, compensation, etc. If you underinvest in the team and the technology suite, your Head of People will inevitably be pulled into day-to-day firefighting and struggle to lead strategically.

The right Head of People can be truly transformational for your business. They can help you unlock your own potential and the potential of your fellow leaders, and can support the cultural change that your organization needs to take you into your future. Best of luck on your search!

Tags: Primers