The role of what has traditionally been called Human Resources has changed dramatically over the past 25 or so years. This change is reflected in the creation of new titles for the head of that function – Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO), Chief People Officer (CPO), Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) and others have replaced long-standing titles such as Human Resources Director, Lead, or Manager or even VP of Human Resources.

What’s important is not the change of titles, but what those changes represent. The “new” titles have one thing in common – the “Chief” or “C” designation. In almost all corporations, the “C” designates someone who reports to the CEO and who is part of a group (the “C-Suite”) that, along with the CEO, guides the overall strategy of the company. Until about 25 years ago, HR was seen as a necessary function to handle such things as compensation, benefits, compliance with regulations, screening potential job candidates, overseeing administrative tasks related to recruitment and firing and administering company policies. It covered the basics that businesses require if they are to continue to grow and remain legally compliant. In other words, HR was purely about tactical blocking and tackling and had no strategic function.

That has all changed, and the change was highlighted` and accelerated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on how companies get work done.

For today’s CPO (let that title stand for CHRO, CHCO, and the rest), balancing the needs of employees with the business’s strategic goals, lies at the heart of the role. This takes a special set of skills — one that blends empathy and business sense — to generate futures that benefit both people and profits.

According to a paper by Mercer, today’s CPOs are relied upon to:

  • Build new relationships and partnerships both within the organization and with external stakeholders
  • Drive innovation outside the confines of foundational HR programs in order to impact the business more broadly •
  • Change risk-averse HR cultures into ones that allow for fast piloting and fast failing
  • Create programs built for constant iteration and thus change “agnostic” and resilient

Mercer goes on to identify four attributes that are essential in anyone holding or being considered for the CPO position:


The CPO must listen in a way that sparks innovation and organizational learning, builds trust and psychological safety, and maximizes employee engagement and commitment to positive change.


Because of their unique position bridging between human and business concerns, the CPO is in many ways the guardian and developer of the organization’s culture. Issues such as inclusivity, work-life balance, psychological and spiritual safety all find their way to the CPO’s oversight.


More and more technology has come to the people functions, and reams of data are an unavoidable part of the CPO’s job. But data sets mean little if they are not harnessed to plot a way ahead. Storytelling turn information into actionable insights, using data to plan strategically and working to create a compelling narrative that all parts of an organization can buy into.


HR tech is freeing up teams to spend more time on creative problem-solving. Activators capitalize on this to help others deliver. They foster execution discipline, operational excellence, and financial and digital acumen.


Two pivotal challenges sit before the CPO: redesigning work so that talent can seamlessly connect with it and creating an employee experience that meets the workforce on its own terms. Transformers harness these key challenges to help their businesses achieve their strategic goals.

These four attributes describe the essentials of the CPO working in their areas of accountability. In addition, the CPO must wear the C-Suite hat, looking at the business as a whole and being a team player, ready to sacrifice in the short term for long-term strategic games. Again, by virtue of living in the liminal zone between human and business concerns, the CPO is in a unique position to mediate and facilitate tough decisions.

Mistakes to Avoid in Recruiting a CPO:

  1. Not hiring one. That is, continuing to treat the people function as less important and operational – rather than strategic.
  2. Failing to recognize the new role(s) of the people function.
  3. Overemphasizing either side of the role. That is, treating the human (“soft”) side of the role as primary and the business (“hard”) side as secondary, or vice versa. A great CPO will skillfully balance the two.
  4. Seeing the CPO as “less than” other members of the C-Suite. Especially when they talk about human factors like employee engagement, morale, and work-life balance.

Even if you have what seems to be an exceptional candidate in-house, outsourcing the recruiting of a CPO is likely to produce the best results and to insulate the company from the possibility of mistakes. An effective recruiting partner will know how to identify the right combination of skill and experience to find the top candidates for an executive-level position, and that executive, when hired, will transform the people function.


BrainWorks is a prominent boutique executive search firm offering a 30-year track record of successfully sourcing and placing top talent. We solve your hiring challenges by leveraging our vast network of highly skilled talent and our extensive, time-tested industry expertise. To learn more about how Brainworks can help you, contact us.

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