How To Build Deep, Valuable Collaboration With Your Chief People Officer
What to expect from your Chief People Officer—and how to avoid common mistakes—as your company goes from tactical to strategic mode.
Being an early stage founder means transitioning from tactical to strategic operations—and partnering with new and existing executives in this pursuit. Easier said than done. My new series, Around the Exec Table, will feature tips, insights, and best practices, role by role. Keep up with new installments by following me on LinkedIn.
In startups' earliest days, People functions are tactical—creating recruiting funnels, instituting systems for onboarding, and designing org charts.
But as companies grow, so do the opportunities for higher-level strategic collaboration between Founders and People leaders. As you consider promoting your Head of People or hiring a new Chief People Officer (CPO), you might be wondering what exactly that would entail. How should you empower them, and what should you expect in return?
Having worked as a three-time Chief People Officer at companies ranging from fifteen employees to 1,000, and now working as a Partner at Primary advising dozens of fast-growing companies, I’ve learned firsthand how to think about these questions. Below are my top tips to make the most out of your People person.
Interviewing and Selecting a Chief People Officer
“Describe the People teams you have managed. How was it structured? What did they own?”
Asking this question quickly cuts through white noise, and you’re looking for a few things in the answer. Does the candidate have a solid grasp on the end-to-end components of a healthy function, from managing the talent acquisition funnel to overseeing the entire employee lifecycle? Do they have business acumen to build an org structure that aligns with business drivers and enhances the company’s culture, not just copy/paste a previous People team into a new business? Do they see their role as being a strategic partner to both the CEO individually and to the executive team as a whole?
You also want to look for a candidate that has self-awareness around their strengths and knows to hire for their gaps. CPOs typically grow up through either Talent Acquisition or Operations, and it’s important they round out their team to cover areas in which they lack experience.
Bring Your CPO into Your Most Important Decision Making
The healthiest companies triangulate decisions about ideas, money, and people between the three leaders responsible for each: the CEO, the CFO, and the CPO. Talent is the most expensive asset a company has. Own it as you would any other huge capital investment and keep your CPO involved in strategy design.
Good CPOs create org charts that enable a team to reach their goals. Looking three, six, or twelve months ahead, your team will need specific capabilities. Your CPO must understand what skills your company already has and what you’ll need so they can design a “build versus buy” talent strategy. Are there people on board who can grow into bigger roles? If so, you can invest in talent development, mentorship, and training to “build” them up? Or, is there no one at the company with the required capability? In that case, you should “buy,” or recruit externally.
Too often, I see founders operating in a vacuum, disconnecting their hiring needs from their business goals. The result is that they only realize a skill gap on the team once it’s urgent. Looping your CPO into strategic conversations gives them the runway needed to proactively build the best team possible.
Your CPO Can Help Build a Cohesive Executive Team
Organizational health is a replication of the dynamics occurring at the leadership level. If the executive team silos information, silos will appear throughout the org. As CEO, you have the responsibility to build a cohesive executive team, where everyone has access to information and is included in decision-making. Your CPO can help: Lean on their high EQ, and trust them to point out fractions or gaps in the team dynamic that need to be addressed.
Your one-on-one relationship with your CPO is just as important. You might be their boss, but they’re also your partner. CPOs have a unique line of sight into organizational dynamics, from the leadership level to the frontlines. Encourage them to bring up observations and challenges that can help you lead more effectively.
Healthy Companies Have Strong Middle Management
Middle managers are the link between leadership and frontline employees. Deputize your CPO to provide middle managers with the right combination of autonomy, direction, and clarity to do their job well. They should be crystal clear on their roles, responsibilities, and expected outcomes, and be aligned with the company’s decision-making framework.
You can set up your middle managers for success by investing resources into your People team, so they can provide training and create safe spaces for open dialogue. Clear communication with your CPO about upcoming decisions is also critical. Your staff will always have questions about changes, and these will inevitably rise up to the CPO, so make sure they’re not in the dark.
Create a Culture That Prioritizes Recruiting
I’ve written about this topic before, but it bears repeating: Recruiting exceptional people to your team is essential. How do you make sure your team is best-in-class? Embrace a company culture that prioritizes recruiting. Set the example by dedicating a significant part of our schedule to networking, sourcing, interviewing, and closing candidates. And lean on your CPO to ensure this culture permeates every level of your company.
Read insights on this topic from top founders here and here.
Build Your Company as a Great Place to Work from a Product Mindset
Your job to set the mission, vision, and values for your company. Your Chief People Officer drives that vision and those values through the entire employee life cycle. They should think about employees as customers and focus on making your company a great place to work with a consistent employee experience. This involves developing clear guidelines around recognition and rewards, decision-making frameworks, and conflict resolution.
Watch Out for Chief People Officer Burnout
Between COVID, remote work, the great resignation, and political upheaval, the last two years have been taxing on Chief People Officers. CPOs have more on their plate than ever before, and burnout is an ever-present concern.
Make sure your CPO is resourced with the team they need to delegate, so that they’re not responsible for the frontline management of all people-related questions, concerns, and complaints. Be super clear about their role, and pay attention to how much your CPO is taking on outside the traditional scope of talent acquisition, talent management, culture building, and retention.
Keep the Focus Sharp and Simple
Successful CPOs deeply understand the company’s strategy and use it as a benchmark to design their people strategy.
There are so many tactical processes for a CPO to manage that it’s easy to get lost in reactive work that doesn’t ladder up to broader strategy. You can help your CPO achieve success by reminding them to keep processes like recruiting or training simple enough for the rest of the company to participate easily. Help them prioritize a few impactful areas, and then vocally support them as they put new processes in place.