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People Strategy

Careers Spotlight: What Is a Chief People Officer?

A business’s most valuable asset is its people. With the right talent, companies can grow quickly and efficiently, but getting the right people in the door is only half the challenge; the other half is keeping them there.

Every company needs someone dedicated to ensuring the business’s current and future talent needs are met. But that doesn’t just entail hiring more employees. In addition to attracting the right talent, businesses need to make sure they’re retaining talent, succession planning, bridging skill gaps, and developing leaders. And there’s only one leadership role that can have such an all-encompassing view of the organization’s People needs: a Chief People Officer (CPO).

In this career spotlight, we’ll dive into what the head of the HR department is responsible for, why companies need one, and the skills Chief People Officers need to have to successfully lead a business’s People strategy.

What Does a Chief People Officer Do? 

A Chief People Officer, or Chief Human Resources Officer, is the head of the HR department at an organization. They are a member of the company’s executive leadership team and are responsible for setting and overseeing the execution of the business’s overall People strategy

From onboarding new hires to offboarding departing employees, the CPO oversees every aspect of the employee experience; it’s their job to ensure the organization can attract, develop, and retain the right talent. The CPO must also work with the executive team and senior management to ensure that every department in HR — benefits, learning and development, talent acquisition, employee relations, diversity and inclusion, compliance, and payroll — works together seamlessly to meet business needs and departmental goals.

“There isn’t one specific set of responsibilities that the Chief People Officer takes care of. However, generally speaking, their main duties are to maximize the employees’ potential and shape the company’s values,” explained Ewelina Melon, Head of People at Tidio, a company that builds live online chat tools. “They are responsible for finding the perfect balance between improving a company culture that benefits employees and developing a successful and profitable business. I believe that CPOs are the bridge between the employee and the employer — the company’s ear to listen to employees’ voices.”

While the Chief People Officer’s job description might seem a bit vague, it’s because every organization is different. Each company is unique and will have different human capital needs ​​and business objectives, so the CPO’s day-to-day role will vary based on what the HR department must prioritize for a given business to succeed. Plus, these needs will always be in flux, so the CPO must be flexible and well-versed in change management to help see their company through any challenges that may arise.

Who Does the Chief People Officer Report To?

The Chief People Officer typically reports to the company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), as the CPO needs to understand how the company is performing and where the business is headed in order to set the organization’s human capital strategy. Additionally, having the head of the company’s ear can ensure that employee experience remains top-of-mind for the organization. 

But in order for the CPO-CEO relationship to benefit both parties, they need to prioritize communication and trust. Only then can the CEO and CPO work as a team to ensure they attract, develop, and retain the talent the business needs to grow and succeed. 

Why Are CPOs Crucial to Business Success? 

A business is nothing without its people. There are very few companies that wouldn’t be impacted if the majority of its employees walked out tomorrow. While odds are your company won’t have to worry about a mass resignation, it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive with your People strategy. 

For example, if you proactively realize that your top performers are frustrated working under a poor manager, you can work to transfer them to a new team or enroll that manager in a leadership training program. On the other hand, had you lacked these insights or waited to take action, your star employees might have resigned, leaving you the time- and money-consuming task of replacing these individuals and onboarding new talent.

In an organization with a strong Chief People Officer, however, these types of talent management issues remain at the forefront. The CPO keeps a pulse on the company’s employees and works to ensure that the organization’s culture, compensation, work-life balance, benefits, and overall employee experience are competitive enough to attract and retain top-performing talent

“Many other leaders are focused specifically on their area — for example, finance, marketing, or operations,” said Amy Roy, Chief People Officer of HR software company Namely. “A CPO is a strategic resource that is able to look across the entire business to drive change.” 

This birds-eye view of the organization’s employee experience, combined with the knowledge of where the business is headed, makes the Chief People Officer the best person to understand what the employees want, what the business needs, and how to get both sides to meet in the middle. 

5 Skills CPOs Should Have on Their Resumes

With such an impactful and high-profile role, not just anyone can be a Chief People Officer. In addition to years of experience and expertise across all facets of Human Resources, a CPO must also have a proven track record of strong management, communication, and problem-solving skills. Below, we’ve outlined five of the top skills CPOs should possess.

1. HR Expertise

As the head of the HR function, a CPO will be responsible for guiding the organization’s strategy across every department. They’ll need to rely on years of experience and knowledge to help their team members build a competitive compensation package, recruit top talent, invest in leadership development, improve employee engagement, and more. 

A CPO also typically has a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Human Resources, Organizational Psychology, Business, or another relevant discipline.

2. Business Acumen

In addition to HR expertise, it’s helpful for Chief People Officers to be well-versed in all aspects of the business. “CPOs should get a strong background in business, understand how [businesses] operate and measure success, and learn how to communicate in the language that other [business leaders] speak,” said Roy. “Many HR leaders don’t know how to create a business case that will resonate to get the financial support their projects need. Learn how to do that early on.” 

3. Interpersonal Skills

On top of all their other responsibilities, the CPO is typically a manager, too. With each department head reporting to them, the CPO needs to have strong interpersonal skills and know how to lead an HR team effectively, while still making time to invest in the development of their own direct reports.

“Soft skills like emotional intelligence, curiosity, flexibility, and teamwork can be the greatest asset of CPOs,” noted Melon. “This skillset enables CPOs to deal with pressure and stress, while successfully building a relationship with employees.”

4. Communication Skills

A Chief People Officer must also be a strong communicator, as they need to be able to give clear, concise instructions to their team leads. Strong communication skills also come into play when presenting compelling People strategy proposals and updates to key stakeholders including the CEO, executive leadership team, and Board of Trustees. 

5. Problem-Solving Skills

A CPO must also be comfortable problem-solving, as this role faces many challenges. Oftentimes, there might be a disconnect between what employees want and what the business needs, so a CPO must be comfortable weighing the pros and cons of a situation and making tough decisions.

While all these skills are important for CPOs to possess, this is by no means an exhaustive list. “CPOs come in all shapes and sizes and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” said Lauren Mason, Head of People at Learnerbly, a workplace learning and development platform. “It’s important that businesses select a candidate whose experience is best suited to the challenge at hand.” 

Having a Chief People Officer at your organization sends a powerful message: Your company cares about its people. The CPO’s sole purpose is to make sure that your company is a great place to work. Having your business’s employees represented at the executive level by a CPO helps ensure that the future is bright for your company.