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What is a chief people officer?
Illustration by Maya Ramadhina

10 min read

What is a chief people officer?

Learn about the role of a Chief People Officer and how they drive success in modern workplaces.

When you hear of someone being at the helm of a company, you may think of the board of directors, the owner, or some other high-level position. And you would be right. But if you thought of the Chief People Officer (CPO) — and don’t worry, it’s understandable if you didn’t — you’d also be right. 

So who or what is the Chief People Officer, and why can we say that they’re at the helm, or in control? 

When it comes to the organization’s workforce, talent management, employee relations, and people-related policies and practices overall, the CPO is typically the decision-maker and the leader. Clearly, aligning an organization’s overall business objectives and goals with the right human resources strategies means success. Essentially, they’re in charge of the crew. And along with the crew, they keep the ship on course.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the specifics of the role.

Role and responsibilities of a CPO

Managing people — managing a people strategy — takes a lot of work. It’s the CPO’s responsibility to help guide the organization to success by ensuring the workforce aligns with the company’s mission, values, and its long-term goals. Something like the captain at the helm of a ship, who with the help of his crew, navigates through the water. Water that isn’t always calm.

Here are several ways in which a Chief People Officer achieves this:

Developing and implementing HR policies and programs

Developing HR policies and programs can include a range of activities that are aimed at creating a framework that dictates — for lack of a better word — the employment relationship. Additionally, instituting any programs or policies that would support the organization’s culture and ensure compliance with any legal and ethical standards.

Creating a positive and inclusive work culture

A positive and inclusive culture will contribute to employee satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately, overall organizational success. So think of it as a foundation or integral building block.

How does a CPO achieve that? They play a key role in defining and communicating the organization’s core values which should emphasize inclusivity, respect, and diversity. It’s their job to communicate these values regularly and enforce their importance in shaping the company’s culture. Additionally, they’ll make sure hiring practices are inclusive by developing unbiased recruitment processes and providing ongoing diversity and inclusion training.

Building and maintaining employee engagement

Without employee engagement, it will be very difficult to develop and maintain a positive work environment. A lack of engagement can also negatively impact productivity and overall organizational success. To address that, there are several strategies a chief people officer can employ to help build and maintain employee engagement.

For example, by establishing transparent communication channels they can keep employees informed about organizational goals, changes, and achievements. They can implement employee recognition programs that acknowledge and show appreciation for individual and team achievements. Additionally, regular two-way feedback is important. CPOs provide regular feedback to employees on their performance and employees should be provided with a channel to offer feedback through things like employee surveys.

Ensuring compliance with labor laws and regulations

Noncompliance can lead to legal issues, reputational damage, and can impact an organization financially. There are several ways a CPO can effectively manage and ensure compliance.

First of all, a chief people officer needs to stay informed. Laws and regulations aren’t static, so they’ll need to regularly monitor for legal updates and even industry trends. And since there’s a good chance they’re not lawyers, it’s wise to establish a strong partnership with legal counsel or compliance officers. This will ensure that the company’s HR policies and practices always align with legal requirements.

The CPO and his team will need to maintain comprehensive records with regards to employment contracts, working hours, leave, and any other relevant documentation they need to keep so they remain in accordance with legal requirements.

Bring your people together

Key skills and qualities of the CPO

By now, it’s probably clear that the role of a chief people officer is multifaceted. It requires a unique set of skills and qualities to navigate the complexities of 21st-century HR management.

Here are five key skills and qualities that will distinguish an effective CPO:

  • Strong leadership and strategic thinking:

      • Visionary leadership: Leadership that can guide the team and the organization toward their strategic goals
      • Strategic planning: The ability to develop and execute strategies that are aligned with overall business objectives
      • Decision-making: They’ll make informed decisions that balance short-term and long-term goals, always keeping their impact on the organization’s workforce and culture in mind
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills:

      • Effective communication: With clear and persuasive communication, they’ll be able to convey complex concepts in a way that resonates with diverse audiences
      • Stakeholder engagement: The CPO will build strong relationships with both internal and external stakeholders, fostering collaboration and understanding
      • Conflict resolution: Conflict is often a given in the workplace, so the CPO needs to possess strong conflict resolution skills and the ability to address interpersonal issues all while promoting a positive workplace culture
  • Deep understanding of HR practices and trends:

      • HR expertise: The CPO will demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of HR principles, policies, and best practices
      • Continuous learning: They stay abreast with evolving HR trends, technologies, and industry developments, always working to drive innovation
      • Legal compliance: A chief people officer ensures adherence to labor laws and regulations, mitigating legal risks
  • Ability to drive change and organizational transformation:
      • Change management: The chief people officer leads organizational change initiatives, guiding employees through transitions and helping them stay adaptable

      • Innovation: Promotes a culture of innovation, encouraging the implementation of new HR practices and technologies

      • Transformational leadership: They inspire and motivate the team to embrace change, positioning the organization for long-term success

  • Data-driven decision making:

      • Data analysis: The CPO will utilize data analytics to find insights into HR metrics, employee performance, and organizational effectiveness

      • Metrics development: Metrics help establish key performance indicators (KPIs)to measure the success of HR initiatives and aligns them with broader business goals

      • Evidence-based strategies: They make decisions based on data, applying a strategic and evidence-driven approach to HR management

CPO vs. traditional HR roles

Over the years, human resource management has evolved. Thanks to the changing dynamics of the workplace, the need for a new role became apparent. The emergence of the Chief People Officer role represents a strategic shift, one that addresses the broader scope of responsibilities that extend beyond more traditional HR functions.

Let’s look at two areas.

Contrasting the CPO role with HR manager and director positions

The emphasis of the CPO role is on strategic leadership, setting it apart from traditional HR manager and director positions which typically involve more operational and tactical responsibilities.

HR managers and directors focus on day-to-day HR functions, things like recruitment, employee relations, and compliance. However, the CPO takes on a more visionary role, with oversight in areas of strategic planning, making sure HR practices and initiatives align with overall business objectives while contributing to the organization’s long-term success.

It’s important to address scope as well. Traditional HR roles often operate within departmental boundaries, concentrating on specific HR functions for particular business units or departments. But in contrast, the role of the CPO influences the organization as a whole. The Chief People Officer has a broader influence, as they collaborate with executive leadership and shape organizational culture.

Evolving role of HR in the era of the CPO

In this new era, the traditional perception of HR as a support function is changing, and HR professionals are increasingly seen as strategic advisors who contribute to key business decisions. It’s the CPO who facilitates this by promoting collaboration between HR and other business units, ensuring that HR strategies are integrated into the organization’s strategic planning process as a whole.

Benefits of having a CPO

Having a chief people officer in the organization can bring numerous benefits that extend beyond the more traditional HR functions. Consider the role they play in the following:

  • Enhancing employee experience and satisfaction: The CPO ensures the company remains focused on enhancing the overall employee experience. By championing initiatives that promote satisfaction, well-being, and professional growth, the CPO contributes to a positive workplace culture that attracts and retains top talent.
  • Driving talent acquisition and retention: The CPO takes a strategic approach to talent management, leading initiatives that will attract high-caliber candidates and fostering a work environment that retains top performers. This is essential for sustaining a competitive edge in the marketplace.
  • Aligning people strategy business goals: A CPO plays a crucial role in aligning an organization’s people strategy with their overall business objectives. By ensuring that HR initiatives are directly tied into the company’s goals, the CPO contributes to a more cohesive approach, driving the overall success of the organization.
  • Improving organizational performance and productivity: Using strategic workforce planning, performance management, and employee engagement initiatives, the CPO significantly influences organizational performance and productivity. The impact of this extends to optimizing the company’s human capital and fostering a culture of continuous improvement and high performance.

Challenges faced by CPOs

The role of the CPO is not without challenges. Not surprisingly, the landscape of human resource management can be filled with potholes. Let’s discuss three specifics.

Balancing the needs of employees and organizational objectives

Balancing the diverse needs of employees along with the strategic objectives of the organization can pose a significant challenge for CPOs. On one hand, they need to foster a positive employee experience, supporting work-life balance, and ensuring their well-being. But on the other hand, CPOs need to align human resource strategies with the broader goals of the organization.

This can be a delicate balance to achieve as it involves crafting policies and programs that prioritize employee satisfaction while contributing meaningfully to the company’s success. It’s a challenge to find harmony while balancing the two.

Navigating complex legal and compliance issues

Employment laws are often in a state of flux, and CPOs need to stay abreast of all laws, from federal down, not to mention any international regulations that may impact remote employees. From employment contracts to diversity and inclusion initiatives, CPOs need to uphold ethical and legal standards and mitigate risk, striking a balance between compliance and workforce that creates and fosters innovation, inclusion, and employee satisfaction.

Overcoming resistance to change and cultural transformation

Pushback against change is common, and CPOs often need to overcome inertia as processes, technologies, and cultural norms shift — and then shift again. This requires effective change management strategies, clear communication, and a commitment to involving employees in the transformation process. It can be a challenge to foster a culture of adaptability and innovation without forgetting or ignoring the concerns of the workforce while at the same time ensuring a smooth transition that aligns with the organization’s overall strategic objectives.

Future trends in the CPO role

The role of Chief People Officer is evolving in response to the ever-changing trends that are shaping — or will shape — the future of work. CPOs are adapting to meet the changing needs of the workforce in several ways. Let’s address three.

Embracing technology and data analytics for HR decision-making

CPOs are increasingly leveraging advanced technologies and data analytics to inform HR strategies. From AI-driven recruitment processes to predictive analytics for talent management, embracing technology is becoming integral for CPOs who want to optimize their human capital and enhance organizational performance.

Focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives

CPOs are recognizing the importance of placing a heightened emphasis on fostering diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. By acknowledging the positive impact on innovation and organizational culture, they’re advocating initiatives that promote diversity at all levels, ensuring equal opportunities in creating inclusive environments that resonate with the values of their workforce.

Shifting responsibilities in response to remote and flexible work arrangements

With the rise of remote and flexible work arrangements, CPOs have had to reassess traditional HR responsibilities. This new norm will require CPOs to develop practices and policies that support hybrid work models and prioritize employee well-being. All while maintaining a cohesive organizational culture across diverse geographical locations.


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Elle Holder

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