3 Ingredients for an Epic CEO/CHRO Relationship

Speaking truth to power, a sharp focus on values and a lack of fear are keys to a healthy CEO/CHRO relationship.


As you move through your HR career toward the C-suite seat, you discover that you have critical career questions whose answers are hard to find. It’s an awkward moment in your career timeline. You have very specific career questions filled with nuance–even anxiety. But the mass-market HR career-advice books just won’t cut it for you anymore. And you don’t quite yet have the personal relationships across the entire landscape of HR leaders where you can just pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I need your advice. Can I have 45 minutes of your busy life?”

You need diversity of opinion, breadth and depth of experience and insights. And you need trusted relationships where CHROs you admire will authentically open up to you. That will happen for you someday. But it’s right now that you need the access and help.

In this first column, I’ve tapped my vast network of CHROs to help answer your advanced career questions.

The first question in this series is: What are the essential ingredients for an epic CEO/CHRO relationship?

I selected this as the inaugural question because a disconnected relationship between the CHRO and the CEO is a common point of pain and can easily derail an otherwise promising HR career. On the other hand, analyze the performance of any celebrated company and you will find non-negotiable commitment to people strategy and culture. That necessitates an epic partnership between the CEO and the CHRO. Then we naturally have to ask ourselves what goes into such a relationship.

So that is an obvious place to start this column.

Have a strong, predictable values set. — Ann Rhoades, president of People Ink, former chief people officer at Southwest Airlines and executive vice president at JetBlue

“The CEO has to be confident that you have a values set so well-defined and established that your guidance will keep the CEO safely inside the guardrails of the company’s values. Your own focused values set will create a profound level of trust and mutual respect between the two of you.

This commitment demands a certain amount of gutsiness on your part. Never let any job be more important than your values.  You need to be a risk taker, and by your example, you encourage the CEO to be more courageous as well. The CEOs you want to work for are the ones who respect and love your counsel, because counselors with guts and courage are who they need at their level. I’ve had CEOs continue to call me years after our official relationship is over. Why? Because they trust me to tell them what their team won’t. Everyone on their team has their own agenda going on, which is normal and to be expected. The CEO has to trust that the CHRO will rise above that.

CEOs today want you to stand up for the right thing and guard them from making innocent mistakes. They know they don’t always have the facts, they don’t always think about the 360-degree consequences of their initiatives. That’s our job. They deserve our strong, informed opinions. And when we provide that counsel, we elevate ourselves from being mere order takers to true partners for the success of the organization.”

Be fearless in presenting the truth. — Stan Sewitch, vice president of global organization development at WD-40 Co.

“Be willing to accept whatever consequences come from that truth, as long as it’s in the best interest of the organization and it’s not just self-serving for you. CEOs know that everyone sees them as a tool in the promotion of their own careers, their futures, their day-to-day livelihood. When receiving input from their team, they’re asking themselves, “Are they telling me this because they think it’s what I want to hear?”

The CHRO is expected to provide personal and behavioral feedback as well as organizational input, which makes this relationship a uniquely emotionally sensitive one. This will mean there could be anger, confrontations, even counterattacks. That’s to be expected. CEOs are human. If there is resilience in the relationship, it may take a while for the emotional energy to subside. It’s what happens a few days later that tests the true nature of your relationship. Is that new interaction authentic and close again? Can the two of you return to some kind of equilibrium or have an even better relationship because of what you two went through together? What’s going to hold you two together and get you through so that you can return to your shared focus on the long-term goal?”

Be prepared to tell the CEO no. — Brian Smith, managing director, HR Atrium, former CHRO Waterford at Wedgwood Group, Allianz Global Risks and Preferred Mutual Insurance

“Epic relationships require mutual trust and respect. That means that CHROs must sometimes tell CEOs no. When I interview with prospective CEOs, I tell them explicitly that there will be conversations that I have with my peers and others in the company that the CEOs shouldn’t ever know about. Just as CEOs will tell me things they can’t tell anyone else, I am effective only to the extent that others have the same trust that I will keep their confidences as well.

It’s not a comfortable feeling to tell the CEO “no” when I’m asked to share some confidential information. That’s human nature. But it’s ultimately fatal to the CHRO/CEO relationship if CHROs give in to the temptation to betray the trust of other people in the company.

The ability to say no to the CEO and establish that value boundary brings you to the table as mutually respected peers. You are your own person, an accomplished professional. Sure, you don’t forget who is signing your paycheck. But at the same time, you have judgment and insight that warrants respect. In the epic relationship, the CEO trusts that the CHRO will use sound judgment when the matter is something that could put the company at risk without the CEO’s intervention. If the information is critical to the company’s interests, the CEO will be told. Otherwise, the confidences of others remain confidential.

We’re all told that we have to be ready to be fired at any time. But frankly, being prepared to be fired is the quality that actually protects you from being fired. CEOs have plenty of people around them who will pander to their egos. If you do it as the CHRO, you become useless to them.

CEOs need CHROs who know what’s going on, in real time, living it day to day, fighting with them shoulder to shoulder in the trenches. They don’t have to know everything that’s going on in the company. They have to know that they can trust and respect you and your judgment.

That’s what makes an epic relationship.”

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Martha Finney
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at http://marthafinney.global/lets-get-started.