HR Careers

What Is a Chief People Officer?

May 9, 2023
November 7, 2023
Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

A business’s most valuable asset is its people. In addition to attracting and hiring 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).

A chief people officer is the head of the HR department at an organization. Below, we’ll explain what the CPO is responsible for, why companies need one, and the skills chief people officers need to have to successfully lead a business’s people strategy.

Key Takeaways

  • A chief people officer (CPO) leads an organization’s HR department and works alongside the C-suite.
  • With a view of the employee experience across the entire company, CPOs can make strategic changes to drive business success.
  • Chief people officers should have HR expertise and business acumen in addition to a strong communication and problem-solving skill set.

What does a chief people officer do? 

A chief people officer, also called a chief human resources officer or vice president of people, is the head of HR at a company. A member of the executive leadership team, the CPO is 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 HR’s priorities fit together seamlessly to meet business needs and departmental goals. Business focuses that typically fall under the CPO’s purview include:

“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, chief people and culture officer 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 do chief people officers 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. 

“A CPO is a strategic resource that is able to look across the entire business to drive change.”

Why are CPOs crucial to business success? 

A business is nothing without its people, and it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive with your people strategy. For example, if you realize that your top performers are frustrated working under a less-than-stellar manager, you can work proactively 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 them 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 employee experience and monitors how well the company compares to others in the following areas:

The CPO can then use that knowledge to advocate for changes or initiatives to improve the overall employee experience and keep the company competitive enough to retain top-performing talent.

“Many other leaders are focused specifically on their area — for example, finance, marketing, or operations,” said Amy Roy, vice president of talent at Atlas, a technology company specializing in human experience management. “A CPO is a strategic resource that is able to look across the entire business to drive change.” 

This bird’s-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 expertise and years of experience 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 competencies 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, maximize retention, and more. 

Though career paths can differ, 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 direct reports.

“Soft skills like emotional intelligence, curiosity, flexibility, and teamwork can be the greatest asset of CPOs,” noted Melon. “This skill set 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 solving problems, 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 chief people officers 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 Gomes, VP of people at Build A Rocket Boy, an independent game developer. “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. With a CPO representing your business’s employees at the executive level, you can help ensure a bright future for your company.Looking to network with other HR leaders? To talk with chief people officers, ask HR questions, and share advice with others, join Resources for Humans, our 20,000+ person Slack community of people leaders.