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A ‘C’ Change in the C-Suite

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected]

Last week I received an email electronically signed by a business colleague. Her name was familiar, but her title was not: chief collaboration officer, a designation unique to her organization. I’ve also seen other new, disruptive titles: chief experience officer, chief culture officer, chief ethics officer and chief analytics officer. Some of these titles replace the traditional CHRO title, while others are new additions to the C-suite that require close partnership with HR chiefs. Still others are entirely new executive titles and may exist within HR or as part of other functions in the C-suite.

So, does this “C change” amount to contemporary marketing or innovative rebranding? Or maybe it’s just creative business speak? I don’t think so. I believe these new titles reflect changing priorities at the highest organizational levels, changes in response to an increasingly complex, fast-changing world and a new emphasis on talent and culture as the engines of growth and transformation. These new roles are at the intersection of the three Ts–talent, technology and transformation–and represent three essential capabilities that help organizations thrive in the new economy.

Let’s start with talent. When the traditional title of chief human resource officer changes to chief people officer or chief talent officer, what’s the difference? For me, it reflects a shift away from thinking about employees simply as resources to treating them as unique individuals. It’s a welcome trend toward moving away from executing tactical HR to developing innovative human-capital strategies focused on unlocking people’s potential.

You could argue there’s no major difference between the new titles and traditional roles. While most are strongly related, many CHROs have invested in key specialized roles such as chief talent officer and total rewards officer to help their organizations leverage critical expertise well beyond operational execution. This trend of utilizing technology to reduce the heavy burden of HR operational tasks is enabling HR leaders to increasingly focus on the strategic, people-centric side of HR. And this means that key roles in HR can change fundamentally, with a far stronger emphasis on people and investing in their potential.

Titles like chief leadership officer and chief learning officer have been in place for a while. But we’re seeing new roles like chief experience officer and chief collaboration officer emerge. Chief culture officer is particularly important. While some chief culture officers work within HR, others may report directly to the CEO. A new variant of this is chief happiness officer, with a primary focus on employee engagement, designed to win in the competitive talent marketplace by attracting and engaging top talent.

And new roles are emerging that reflect the impact of technology in the workplace. As organizations evolve into more digitally enabled enterprises, designing the optimal combination of humans working in close collaboration with smart machines is seen as one of the best approaches to drive new levels of growth and performance.

In one organization, an HR digital and innovation leader is tasked with transforming how the company works with technology to improve agility and collaboration. Another global HR lead digital transformation role reports jointly to a chief digital officer and to the CHRO. A third role that’s evolving is human performance engineer, who is focused on enabling the work that humans can perform most effectively while working side by side with “digital workers” focused on the work that machines can perform most expertly.

Then there are the data and analytics roles. Technology and data are arguably the fastest-growing areas in HR over the next five years. For HR leaders, technology and data have become critical to our efforts to transform the way we understand work and the workforce to unlock new levels of agility, productivity and innovation. And to better hire, engage and optimize talent.

As for the last T–transformation–as HR leaders’ work shifts away from traditional administrative work to strategic enabling of the enterprise, leaders are increasingly shifting their role (and title) to chief transformation officer. It’s a role that’s responsible for helping organizations constantly adapt to compete and remain relevant by transforming their legacy business, while at the same time seizing new business opportunities. Who better than us as HR leaders to understand the engine–our people–that will be needed for any transformation?

Increasingly, I see HR colleagues taking on this role. Sometimes, it’s formalized and separated from the CHRO role with the title chief transformation officer. In other organizations, it is a component of the CHRO role. For those of us in organizations with separate chief transformation officers, there’s an opportunity to closely collaborate to ensure a holistic view that encompasses the human side of transformation.

So what comes first, the title or the change? New titles can signal an important strategic shift within an organization. They can also provide much-needed focus on urgent priorities. But regardless of whether your organization makes a change in titles, all of us are responsible for keeping our organizations moving forward in new directions. Whether we’re known as CHROs, CPOs or new titles yet to be developed, we have the unique opportunity to serve as the driving force behind growth, enabled by the powerful intersection of talent, technology and transformation.