Why A Strong CEO And CPO Partnership Is Critical For A Strategic People Function

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I often joke that people leaders within an organization are asked to be everything, everywhere, all the time. The expectations placed on people leaders and their teams across an organization can feel like an impossible burden. We are the experts on compliance and employment law; the managers of extraordinarily complex processes and systems; coaches to executives and mentors to people leaders; the employee-friendly advocate and the empathetic ear; the owners of DEI and culture initiatives; the messengers of hard decisions around performance or compensation; the first point of contact in a high-stakes crises; and often, the company party planners (or at least, the face of social engagement within an organization).

The list can go on and on, but the reality is most people functions buckle under the pressure of all the roles they are asked (or frankly, volunteer) to take on. The conversation for many years in my circle of Chief People Officers (CPOs) has been about driving the people function to be more strategic, but I’ve learned that this is not for the faint of heart. It takes significant relationship building, discipline, and mindset shifts both for the people leaders and the organization they work in to effectively be strategic.

I wanted to use my column here at Forbes to explore what a strategic CPO and people function means to me, and how people leaders can not only drive operational and organizational excellence, but become a next-generation business leader in the process.

The make-or-break relationship here – and the one that will determine the success or failure of a people function and any CPO – is the partnership with your CEO.

Why the CEO partnership matters

A few months ago, Jack Altman, the CEO and Founder of Lattice (and my boss) graciously posted on LinkedIn that more often than not, I am his first phone call in most cross-functional, high-stakes business situations.

As Jack and I discussed his comment, I learned that he comes to me first because whether in my official domain or not, I not only have knowledge of the topic but likely additional cross-functional context and information to help support him in his decision-making. Since then, Jack and I have been partnering together to codify what it means to have a strategic CPO with an equal – if not elevated – seat at the C-Suite table.

There are three key ways I’ll get into around how a strategic CPO can be a highly effective partner to a CEO:

  1. Strategic Alignment
  2. Operational Impact
  3. Ruthless Prioritization

Let’s talk about how to get there.

Achieving strategic alignment

A strong, strategic CPO should have a deep understanding of the company’s business goals and objectives, using those as a north star to design talent strategies that contribute directly to achieving those goals. This seems obvious, yet I often see people leaders walk into organizations with their own ideals on how a company “should” operate or what “should” be important to the CEO with regard to talent and employee experience, with limited regard for the broader organizational goals and existing culture.

While it’s important to bring your own ideas to the table, a collaborative approach is critical in order to build trust with your CEO, and will ultimately make it easier for a CPO to succeed. To ensure strategic alignment, I recommend taking a few important steps:

  • Spend time with your CEO understanding his or her views on talent management – and truly listen to their perspective. What matters to this leader? What is their view on their performance? What is their ask of the people function? How progressive does the CEO want to be with their people practices – are they trying to lead the pack, or focus on ensuring basics are flawless?
  • Ask hard questions about tradeoffs. For example, what is your leader’s perspective on hiring and retaining “brilliant jerks”? What are the most important criteria or competencies for people managers at the company? When the people function has competing priorities and limited resources, what does the leader care about most? When company values are under attack or at odds with one another, what lines are they willing to draw and stand by?
  • Learn your leader’s working style. How does your leader build trust? Is it by being in the weeds and understanding your thought process or by staying above the fray and getting the key takeaways? Said otherwise, does your CEO want to be involved in the why behind programmatic decisions, or do they want your fully baked ideas on programs and processes? Who are the key leaders within the organization whose opinion matters to your CEO and how do you work with those leaders to ensure alignment? Where does your CEO see him/herself as a strong leader and what are their self-identified opportunities for development?

Once you understand your CEO’s framework for decision-making and prioritization, you have the keys to the kingdom. Refer back to, and revisit, this conversation often, as it will help you frame both positive impact as well as help you navigate when you have to push for programming that may not be top of mind for your CEO.

Start with operational impact

In order to have the people function be seen as a value creator, there are two levers we can pull. Either leaders, managers, and employees have to do less work for the same impact, or they get more impact for the same amount of effort. Finding high-impact areas – big and small – early in your tenure as a CPO is a critical component of long-term success in the role and the ability to move into more strategic work over time.

For me, that means showing an early operational win within my first six months at an organization. My process for identifying the areas of focus starts by doing a listening tour and understanding leader, manager, and employee pain points. From there, I spend on the areas that are most impactful to the largest number of people within an organization, and within my control to fix, especially early in my tenure.

For example, at Lattice, my first area of focus was accelerating the people function and making sure our house was in order before we launched more initiatives externally for the company. In order to ensure we were credible, especially in an organization focused on talent and performance management, the people function needed to lead the pack by leveraging technology, ensuring clear swim lanes, and putting our best people in the roles for which they were best suited. Whether it was people operations or recruiting, my team went through significant — and at times difficult – transformation. Old habits, or the ways we worked when we were smaller and scrappier needed to change for more sustainable, longer term growth. Within a few months, managers and leaders saw the impact of clearer goals, streamlined internal processes, better tools, and ultimately more responsiveness to their highest needs. They also started to see the downstream impacts on their work, whether it was more effective use of the Lattice platform, more efficient means to get information, or better communication on goals and priorities. Too often I find a People leader’s instinct is to go ‘prove’ to the organization that their role or function is important, and my inclination is to go inward first, before trying too hard to show external value to the organization.

The reality for the people function and for CPOs is that trust is earned, not automatically given. A partnership between a CEO and a CPO goes both ways, and the people function has to show impact first in order to be given more trust and a seat at the proverbial table. For me, focusing on operational excellence is the starting point to pull forward bolder people team agendas.

Embrace ruthless prioritization

We can all agree that a people function in any organization has more than enough on its plate to be busy for a lifetime. After 20+ years of people leadership, I have seen so many HR leaders burn out because they are trying to do it all, and more importantly, hold it all together. Often the instant gratification of helping one employee or one manager in reality takes away from time spent on larger projects that may help scale people to be more efficient and effective and bring down workloads. The people team is left playing whack-a-mole, over-capacity, exhausted, and underappreciated.

My advice? Be OK with dropping some balls, with the caveat of having a plan of who will pick them up. Ultimately, focusing on ruthless prioritization will create space for you as a leader and for your teams to have more time to spend on the longer-pole, more strategic projects, and continue to show impactful wins to the leaders of your organization. Some ways to make this happen for you and your team:

  • Hire early for an L&D leader: Undeniably, employee performance and growth are important to all organizations and my experience has shown that the sooner you are able to train leaders, managers, and employees on how to build high-performing teams that can have high-stakes conversations, the more bottom line impact an organization sees. At Lattice, I have had the pleasure of hiring Mollie West Duffy and together we have created both a look-back and look-forward approach to employee performance and growth. By prioritizing training our managers and employees on how to have critical conversations, and teaching our managers to be effective coaches, we have enabled managers to be the place where employees go for career development and conflict resolution, and significantly reduced the burden on the people team as the go-between. Teaching an organization to fish for themselves, and that high performance is owned by everyone, not just the people function, ultimately gives my team more time to see around the next corner for the next opportunity to be strategic, and me more time to be available to my CEO and leadership team for their cross-functional priorities.
  • Similarly, decentralizing the responsibilities of employee engagement across the organization so that HR is not the torch bearer is a key way to increase the people team and CPO capacity and shift mindset. One key way to do this: Embed culture initiatives into individual employee and manager responsibilities. It helps to have a strong set of core values that every member of the organization upholds – and holds their co-workers accountable for – building culture (see here for Lattice’s approach to our core values). Instead of having the people team lead all engagement efforts, we have members of the C-Suite sponsor culture-building efforts, whether they are social in nature, interest-based groups such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), or other efforts for community building. Planning and organizing these meetings, activities, and events can be invisible work, often placed on the people team with little to no credit. However, by having all parts of an organization take responsibility for this work, we give the people team more capacity and start to shift the mindset that people teams are solely responsible for carrying organizational culture.
  • Finally, ruthless prioritization requires shifting mindsets across leaders, managers, and employees and often requires radical transparency, and CEO backup, for your priorities. As people move from company to company they have a perspective of HR that is built up over time – some positive, and many negative. For me, being incredibly intentional with resource allocation, priorities, and focus, over time gives me a reputation of being a business-first partner to my CEO. However, this can draw criticism across the organization because I may not be meeting every need for every employee, and that can feel hard. This is why the most important part of ruthless prioritization is that I am in alignment with my leadership team and CEO. I let my leaders know when and why tradeoffs are being made and tell them in advance where they might hear chatter or grievances. I make it clear that I am aware of the tradeoffs and why some pockets of the organization may not be happy with my approach, but also that it all serves a broader strategic goal where we are aligned.

Building the muscles to be a strategic CPO requires a mindset shift from both the organization seeing people teams differently and from people leaders and their teams balancing natural “people pleasing” tendencies with longer-term strategic thinking and priorities. This is not easy, but ultimately the way that any rigorous business function works. It is also one of the biggest ways in which my CEO sees me as a partner focused on the long-term success of our company vs. my own functional priorities. My quick tips for becoming that strategic partner: be in alignment, focus on high surface area projects, delete and delegate activities that should not be solely owned by the people team, and focus on the long-term initiatives that build a more sustainable people function.

This is the first in a series of articles about the importance of a strategic CPO and People function that drives both operational and organizational excellence, as an equal partner to the CFO, CMO, COO, CTO, and other members of a company’s leadership. Keep a look out for our next article exploring the importance of the CPO and CFO partnership.

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