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Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


What it takes to be a great Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) is changing. Over the past decade the role has rapidly changed from compliance to a critical strategic role. If I think about what a great HR executive looks like today, I actually step back and ask myself “what makes a great executive, full stop?”

At the C-level, particularly in larger companies, you’re not after functional knowledge. Instead, you’re after the ability to grow people. A great sales leader isn’t necessarily the best salesperson in the company; they’re someone that has worked out how to build a machine. They’ve built a system that hires great people, trains great people and puts them to work winning the right customers.

The same applies to the CHRO. They need to build a system that attracts, retains and grows the right people. And they need to take the rest of their executive team on that journey with them.

With this future in mind, if I’m looking at a CHRO and their HR team more generally, there are four traits that really worry me:

  • Fear
  • Lack of leadership
  • They’re not excited by numbers
  • They don’t value learning

1.  You can smell fear

Whether the fear is coming from the company or from your HR team, if you can smell fear then there’s trouble.

Of course, it’s not always the HR team's fault. Often they're brought into a company that is itself fearful. In this situation, line managers and management may be abdicating responsibility for looking after their own people and want HR to take on this role for them.

This is a challenge for many businesses, but the best ones ensure that the responsibility for their people still lies with the managers. The HR team in these organizations is very good at creating infrastructure that helps managers to deliver on their responsibility.

I’ve seen some businesses try to do this the other way around, with HR taking responsibility for their people, but it just doesn’t work. HR must help managers do their job, not the other way round.

2. Lack of leadership

The CHRO is the domain expert in leadership. If your CHRO cannot lead then it's very difficult for them to teach other people how to do it.

Exceptional leadership capability is essential in a truly great CHRO. It’s a very powerful thing to have somebody leading the way with a deep understanding of how to train and create truly great leaders.

In the past, HR has rarely been considered to be the best manager or best people leader on the executive team. But when you think about the role they have, it’s time for management and boards to think this way and hire accordingly.

3. They’re not excited by numbers

In this day and age, no executive can afford not to get into the numbers. A great CHRO doesn’t have to be a data analyst, but they must be excited by the transformative potential of data and numbers.

There is great power in the ability to bring insights from complicated data. This is a huge opportunity for everyone in business, but even more so in people and culture.

For some context it’s worth keeping in mind that most parts of the business really aren’t good at using data to drive decision making. Finance isn’t very good at; engineering isn’t very good at it. Other parts of the business may be more comfortable with numbers, but that rarely translates to effective decision making.

It's hard to get good at using data to inform decisions. But that’s no excuse for not being excited about the possibilities. Whether you’re COO, CEO or CHRO, there’s no room today for any executive to have fear or hesitation with regards to numbers.

4.  They don't value learning

The science behind what we’re doing in people and culture is changing so quickly, it’s easy to be left behind.

If you look at all the changes in the research, like neurophysiology and industrial-organizational psychology, a great CHRO must be continually learning. It’s like being a biologist in the early days of DNA research; the science is changing around us and we can no longer rely on things we learnt 20 years ago. You actually have to tear up the rulebook and do new things.

Really great HR people are willing to explore new ideas and are able to take other people on that journey as well. They’re willing to help their organisations be progressive and work at the cutting edge.

Ultimately if your CHRO isn’t approaching their role and viewing your organisation with a growth mindset, then it may be time to look further afield. In business today, you win when your people are the most important thing in your business. True competitive advantage is when you can hire better people than your competition, keep better people than your competition and grow better people than your competition. These are all responsibilities that the CHRO cannot abdicate.


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