Lead Strong Episode 31: The challenges facing Chief People Officers in 2022

This episode of Lead Strong saw hosts and Directors of Cappfinity’s Talent Practice, Celine Floyd and Stephanie Hopper join with Olivia Sharp, Partner for HR Practice at Eton Bridge Partners Ltd, and James Edgar, Chief People Officer (CPO) at Sygnature Discovery, to discuss the challenges facing CPOs today.

What are the challenges?

Around 70% of HR leaders believe this year to have been the most challenging in their career to date.  This is not only due to dealing with the personal impact of the pandemic, but also the increased responsibility and focus on their roles as they try to find certainty in ambiguity and listen to the employee voice in a way that has not been done before.

Research from Adecco Group has shown that top people management roles are shifting, to allow for a greater focus on technology and data, as well as people culture and change.  As such, one of the many challenges is to ensure that the needs of the employee and the needs of the business are balanced.  This can be difficult in a world where it is hard to get certainty and think too far in advance.

Having a technology or data focus should not mean you cannot focus on people, culture and change.  Olivia believes both are interdependent complementary concepts and therefore the perfect set-up would be one where the two inform each other, particularly for the role of a CPO.

Is there a shift in the skills needed to be a successful CPO?

The CPO role has become even more important for organizations following the impact of Covid. Olivia has seen a raft of new CPO jobs for organizations where they have not previously had this role.  The needs can be different for each depending on the type of organization and where they are in their journey.

An organisation going through strike action for example, will have very different CPO needs to that of a rapid growth tech start up.  Therefore, it is more important to have the ability to flex and think about the context in which a CPO may be operating.  So, whilst the core skills to perform the function of a CPO may not have changed drastically, the way you play to those skills in a new organization has.

Technology and data have also shifted the way things are done, particularly in the way we personalize our messaging to clients and customers.  James said he has seen a shift between the expectations of consumer experience to employee experience, leading to the need for CPOs to drive a much more tailored approach to communication and inclusion with employees in a way that has not been seen before.

CPOs are working much more collaboratively now to harness the skills they need.  James explained that he’s purposely looked for people outside of the HR function to find the skill sets in data or skill sets in journey planning to achieve the results he needs.  A lot of the work he does with the Marketing Team for example, is very much joint, whereas before it was more separate.  This has enabled a shift from working reactively to being more predictive.

Are we finally seeing HR have a seat at the top table?

Generally, we are seeing more HR and People function within board positions, however this is not the case everywhere.  At Eton Bridge Partners, Olivia stated that their research, which was specific to the UK market over the past three years, found that the percentage of new CPOs holding full board positions has dropped from 18% to 11%.  This is surprising given that this has happened over a period when the CPO role would have been under the spotlight like never before.

Some of this is down to the types of organisations that are hiring CPOs and there has been a lot of organisations recruiting for those roles for the first time.  This charts a journey from having no HR function, to having one at a more junior level, to maybe sitting or working as part of the executive team before finally sitting on the board.

Olivia expects to see this course correct over the next couple of years, but it does raise some interesting questions about why when most of the world seems to accept that individualizing the experience of the employee and thinking in the context of EQ and IQ, might we be seeing that participation drop at board level.

How is balancing the needs of employees and the business playing out?

Despite a very public focus on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, one recent statistic indicated that only 40.2% of organizations have a wellbeing programme.  For many, mental health and an organization’s performance go hand in hand, but some organizations are grappling with this need to create new policies that balance the needs of employees and business.

James has seen lots of organizations talking about creating a wellbeing strategy, but its often used as a tick box exercise when it should go deep into the organization.  It’s about how you create sustainable performance, that’s the middle ground that allows you to consider the whole of the employee’s needs, whilst balancing the needs of the organization.

We do not want to create a crisis whereby employees are working long hours, driving them to burnout and leading to a crash and then the need to recruit.  Sustainable performance will provide the organization with what it needs whilst giving legitimacy to wellbeing.

Secondly, you must create a trusted culture and environment where employees feel they can raise their concerns.  James feels there is still a lot of stigma around raising issues.  Suddenly, we trip into labels of burnout and depression and that stops some of the conversations where the issue may not be as extreme and raising it could prevent it from reaching crisis point.  Therefore, taking a holistic view enables CPOs to hardwire a trusted culture and environment for these conversations to take place.

Covid has taught us that people are looking for authenticity of leadership and organization.  It is amazing how quickly you can identify an inauthentic or disingenuous organization when they have lots of outwardly facing good policies, but inwardly facing cultures that counter that.

In Olivia’s experience, she has found that most organizations do have some semblance of a wellbeing strategy, but often it stops at Mental Health First Aid.  It’s a bit like having hundreds of defibrillators all over your local town, but no hospitals and no education around healthy eating or exercise.

The problems relate to having the right leadership in place.  People will naturally follow if you have the right leaders and feel like they can bring their whole selves to work.  They will also feel more comfortable to talk about the issues that are causing them to feel like they’re not included or to share ideas on how things could be done better inside the organization.

Everything is inherently connected and so when it comes to balancing the needs of the business with the needs of people, my answer is that we can and should do both.

Watch the full episode here.