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The state of the CHRO: How to capitalize on the post-COVID HR momentum

Robert David
Robert David
Robert David is executive director of CSHRP, the Community for Strategic HR Partnership. Prior to this role, he was Managing Director of Corporate Education for the University of California, Berkeley. He is also professional faculty and founder for Silicon Valley Executive Education, has played a role in other HR organizations in the Bay Area and serves on the non-profit Gratitude Network’s Board.

Human resource departments have been working on overdrive since 2020, constantly assessing and reassessing rapid fluctuations in our social, economic and cultural landscapes, while simultaneously attempting to optimize working conditions and recruit new talent despite numerous global crises.

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It also makes sense that HR departments and their leaders—the chief people officers/chief human resource officers—now occupy a prominent (and promising) position at the very center of business operations. In fact, a recent survey from McKinsey indicates HR has nowhere to go but up, with over 90% of interviewed CHROs predicting “significant” HR reforms throughout the next two to three years.

Still, HR doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and most CHROs are currently facing the unique predicament of having to manage their own unprecedented stressors while also piloting initiatives to help colleagues through these turbulent times. It’s a phenomenon Carnegie Mellon University CHRO Michelle Piekutowski believes puts HR team members at a crossroads, perched precariously at the “forefront of…staff expressing their frustrations regarding their challenges, all while [HR personnel] are experiencing many of the same challenges themselves,” she told Deloitte.

So, how can CHROs bypass these difficulties and ensure their newfound influence remains sustainable? And how can they help maintain, or perhaps even expand, HR’s critical position as a company keystone going forward?

Here are three essentials for HR leaders to keep in mind as businesses continue to navigate their way through our present age of uncertainty.

Keep it ‘100’

If you remember nothing else, remember this: There’s no substitute for the real deal.

Before you can accurately pinpoint the role HR will play in the future (and quantify the responsibilities you’ll assume as CHRO in the months and years ahead), you must evaluate the “why” behind your motivations—that is, how authentic you are in your commitment to bettering employees’ lives.

Because (and this is the crucial part) if you can’t demonstrate you genuinely care about interpersonal relationships and the “holistic” wellbeing of your people, your HR efforts will always fall short. Especially in a post-pandemic world.

In other words: You have to keep it real.

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Need an expert opinion? Kerry Chandler, CHRO of Endeavor and fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, further elaborated on this inherent truth in a recent interview with HRE:

“The pandemic was a catalyst for so many of us to reflect on what matters most in this life and how best to marry our purpose with our day-to-day work. 
[Therefore, I] spend a lot of time thinking about how companies can ensure their cultures reflect (and best support) their people—that sense of ‘I am valued for who I am AND what I do’—as that alignment is so critical to a company’s ability to secure and keep best-in-class talent.”

As CHRO, your job is largely measured by how much value you place on your talent—and how well you translate that value into action. Such action can take many forms, but here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Listen to the employees you have rather than spending all your time recruiting employees you don’t. Show empathy for talent’s concerns and let these concerns drive your initiatives. Be transparent about things like internal mobility, available benefits, new hires and work/life flexibility, and be sure to track satisfaction levels so you can capitalize on what’s working and dispense with what’s not.
  • Cultivate a culture of inclusion. DEI programs should be leveraged on a systemic scale, while still leaving room for amendment and growth (both of which can be shaped according to metrics on satisfaction and success, as hinted above). Inclusion should also be reflected in your daily actions and in the voices you choose to consult as you expand your reach. Box-ticking simply won’t do. As Chandler says of HR’s re-evaluation of racial justice post 2020: “This is real work—every bit of effort put into it is worth it, and when done with authenticity, [it] will reap tremendous rewards.”
  • Whatever tools you use, don’t abandon your humanity. As you’ll see below, technology (and all its subsequent data) can often provide indispensable assistance in simplifying HR activity and maximizing your CHRO potential. Still, you should resist the temptation to let automation take over. Case in point: CHROs interviewed by McKinsey in 2021 noted a “people-centric policy” should take precedence in certain key situations. So, make it your business to know when real human contact can serve employees better than a computer interface.

Be a leader, not a responder

Hoping to keep the post-COVID HR momentum going? Start flipping the script.

If HR wants to secure a wider sphere of influence, CHROs will have to reinvent the HR image. Businesses are all too familiar with the narrative depicting human resources as an isolated department that keeps to itself, useful only when it comes to cutting monthly checks or conducting the occasional seminar. Your task as CHRO is to help replace this view with something new and inspiring: a story in which HR emerges as a vital, heroic contributor to the health of your organization.

And to do this, you have to lead, not follow.

The good news is the groundwork has already been laid for you. Gartner reports a full 60% of today’s CEOs are ready to “rethink” the HR function, while 70% expect their CHROs to be key players in future business strategy.

The bad news? Only 55% of CEOs feel their CHRO is meeting the moment appropriately.

To establish HR as a strategic partner—or, in former Splunk CPO Kristen Robinson’s words, “right-hand partner to the CEO and board”—the CHRO has to take on some additional personas. These won’t come with added titles, but should instead be considered part and parcel of the CHRO’s general job description. They include (but are not limited to):

Bridge Builder, keeping lines of communication open between HR and C-Suite stakeholders, making sure HR’s strategy, practices, procedures and goals all support big-picture aims for the entire business. (Conversely, CHROs should also ensure companywide initiatives can effectively support HR functions and actively address employee concerns … of both the human and business varieties.)

Pioneer, forging pathways and uncovering new frontiers as needed. Much of the post-COVID landscape is still unsettled territory, but CHROs can absolutely help with the ongoing colonization. As organizations begin to codify concepts such as “hybrid work” and “employee wellness,” the CHRO should fight to include HR in the conversation and to place HR at the head of new programs that arise as a result. Such responsibilities are a chance to prove just how valuable HR can be. They’re also an opportunity to help firmly embed human resources into the organizational fabric. As Dashlane CPO Ciara Lakhani cautioned HR practitioners in a recent Workday study: “The HR team needs to be ready to execute new responsibilities with confidence where there are no existing best practices.”

Decider, taking on tough challenges and wielding power of approval in areas such as resource allocation and budgeting, even for functions slightly outside the standard HR purview. For example: Sales methodology adoption might not fall directly under the auspices of HR, but it could potentially see some overlap with procedures that do (like onboarding and training). In such cases, the CHRO should ideally have a say in how best to implement the methodology. Similarly, the CHRO should be part of the decision-making process for all initiatives that impact employee lives, such as when, where and how to offer education and development programming for rising company talent.

Together, these roles can go a long way toward recasting HR in your company narrative as a proactive protagonist, rather than a reactive supporting character. As such, CHROs should use them as part of their overarching plan to help HR take center stage.

Let tech do some of the heavy lifting

On a good day, competing HR functions and obligations can overwhelm even the most seasoned of HR teams.

And, obviously, COVID has only compounded the problem.

Indeed, Robinson maintains the post-pandemic era represents a double-edged sword in which HR has been given an extraordinary opportunity to elevate its own status, but also has been forced to face more pressing challenges than ever before. “Today’s world offers up so many dynamics that … instigate the need for [HR leaders] to lean in and drive business/talent actions,” Robinson says, adding, “No one else has the scope (or wants it!) to effectively take these issues on.”

Given the many dynamics in play, CHROs should take advantage of every tool at their disposal to help eliminate stress and sidestep unnecessary roadblocks. Got a task that can be easily automated? Outsource it to a tech platform that will assume the burden for you. Email automation solutions, project management software and the like can all work wonders in streamlining day-to-day activity.

In addition, technology solutions for aggregating, analyzing and storing employee data can also cut back on HR headaches, particularly in larger enterprises. Platforms such as digitized training and testing modules as well as data dashboard software can collect wide datasets and break them down according to nearly any metric. The resulting analysis can then help CHROs take comprehensive temperature readings on markers regarding employee adoption, satisfaction and engagement across a variety of programs.

In the interest of bringing things full circle, it’s important to remember that tech is by no means a panacea for every HR pain, and that ingenuity is no stand-in for empathy. As Endeavor’s Chandler notes:

“…The secret sauce is in finding the balance between data and real human connection, as there’s still so much that can only be learned through conversation and observation.”

So, while data may give you a window into how employees are doing/feeling/performing, you as CHRO will still need to give them as much of your time and personal attention as possible. This means face-to-face meetings, talkback panels and frequent check-ins. It also means you should remain flexible and offer a sympathetic ear, even (and especially) when you’re presented with grievances you might not understand at first.

This may very well be a learned skill, but it’s an essential component of authenticity.

It’s also a sign of true leadership.

And for the HR boom to continue into the next decade, CHROs must prove themselves to be authentic leaders, as adept at interpersonal contact as they are at crunching numbers.

Today’s employees deserve nothing less.