The evolution of the CPO role

One man sitting and one woman standing in meeting smiling and laughing.

As the role of Chief People Officer (CPO) continues to evolve in line with emerging technologies and challenges, current and aspiring CPOs must adapt to be successful. Though the fundamental skills of fostering a diverse and inclusive culture, building commercially-aligned People strategies and effectively managing stakeholder relationships remain, CPOs can expect to face an increasing need to further develop their commercial and transformation skills and become equal parts business leaders and functional experts.

With increasing investment into the HR function, CPOs are likely to have access to data and systems that previously were only aspirational. A solid foundation of digital skills and an understanding of technology will be required to make the most of this new investment. This will allow CPOs to make more informed, data-driven decisions to inform their People Agendas.

To further explore how the role of CPO has developed in recent years and how senior leaders can prepare for success going forward, we interviewed two highly experienced senior HR professionals, Amanda Chillcott, previously Group HR Director at Neptune Energy and Kate Evans, Chief People Officer at Xeinadin who revealed how they expect the role of CPO to develop in the coming years.

Increasing importance of employee engagement

Despite the continuous evolution of the CPO role, there are still fundamental priorities that HR leaders anticipate will remain high on the agenda. According to Manpower’s survey, UK talent shortages are reaching an 18-year high, a fact that is backed up by findings from our recent Transformational Leadership report which revealed that 41% of HR leaders expect talent shortages to remain a challenge over the next five years. With this in mind, focus draws to how HR leaders can improve employee retention, enhance hiring strategies and develop skills and capabilities to battle increasing talent shortages.

Kate Evans, Chief People Officer at Xeinadin, agreed that there is still a recurring issue surrounding employee retention but argued that “there is an important nuance between avoiding mediocrity and, really driving high-performing teams, as opposed to just improving retention.” Amanda Chillcott, previously Group HR Director at Neptune Energy, built on this when she suggested there is a “growing requirement for organisations to become more outcome-focused, and measure people more on the quality of their work and what they deliver” rather than focusing on input-related behaviours like simply showing up to the office.

The challenge for CPOs will be to determine how they are defining high performance and quality across their organisations, and putting systems and processes in place to ensure consistency of these measurements at an organisational level. They will need to do this while balancing the need for retaining talent and attracting new talent to the business. Driving a high-performance culture, whilst maintaining high levels of employee engagement will be a challenge that CPOs will need to face head-on to deliver the best results for their organisations.

Equal parts business leader and functional expert

For some time now, CPOs have been more than just HR specialists. Amanda Chillcott stressed that there is a growing importance for CPOs to focus on becoming “equal parts functional experts and business leaders, because too often HR leaders zone out when it comes to other parts of Executive or Board level reviews, and only speak up when the HR function is involved”. This reinforces the need for CPOs to adopt a holistic business view and give credibility to the work they do. Kate Evans maintained this by commenting that “CPOs need to partner with the business and contribute to the overall strategy at a high level” while adding that it is crucial for “any aspiring CPO to acquire a strong financial understanding of what drives revenue in their business, and to position themselves as strategic Board leaders that can link the people agenda back to business growth.” 

Despite the increasing importance of commercial skills in the HR function, CPOs still need to have a strong focus on their areas of expertise, especially culture. Amanda Chillcott suggested that “the CPO should always be on high alert to spot signs of poor leadership to prevent negative behaviours trickling down the wider company. It is the CPO’s responsibility to call out bad behaviours and drive trust in the workforce to demonstrate there is real care from the very top of the Board.” Kate Evans, supports the need for CPOs to remain a “culture catalyst” in any organisation, however, she reminds us that it should be “the whole organisation’s responsibility to drive culture, not just the CPO.”

The CPO should provide strategic direction on how to shape culture and advise the senior leadership team. This cannot occur in isolation, or be delivered by one individual, it needs to happen progressively throughout the organisation. Therefore, CPOs must play a pivotal role in empowering leaders across the organisation to become culture catalysts in their own right to drive desired behaviours. This is reflected in our Transformational Leadership report, with 24% of senior HR leaders rating “empowerment” as a top skill C-suite leaders need for success over the next five years.

A focus on data analysis to deliver strategic value

With our Transformational Leadership report revealing that the top three transformation priorities for senior leaders over the next five years will be AI, CRM systems and data analytics, it is no surprise that 31% of HR leaders anticipate developing digital skills to be crucial.

Emma-Claire Kavanagh, Managing Director for BIE’s People & Culture Function, commented that “there has been a lack of digital investment in the HR function for some time, resulting in a limited ability for the CPO to make data-driven decisions. With more organisations seeing the value in this investment, improving their digital skills will allow Senior HR Leaders to gather more detailed data and utilise it more effectively.” However, Kate Evans argued that “though there is a fundamental requirement for the CPO to have a strong digital understanding, the CPO’s digital priority should lie in the analysis of the data, and their ability to bring the data to life and provide crucial insights into the organisation for the rest of the Board.”

This suggests that though a digital understanding is required, CPOs need to invest their time and focus on utilising data to deliver insights in order to inform their current and future People strategy and reinforce their strategic position on the Executive Committee.

Key takeaways

  1. The fundamental skills of culture creation and relationship management will continue to underpin the role of CPO going forward, but this shouldn’t be to the detriment of being commercially minded.
  2. With increasing investment in innovative technologies, CPOs need to acquire a strong digital understanding, but more importantly should focus on data analytics to ensure they are making more informed decisions going forward.
  3. CPOs need to become true strategic partners and play a critical commercial role on the Board; on occasion the CPO role can be deprioritised versus other functional leads, despite HR interventions having a significant impact on business success.

For support in your next HR recruitment, feel free to reach out to one of our expert People & Culture Leadership consultants.

Written by

Emma-Claire Kavanagh

Emma-Claire is a member of the executive leadership team and leads the People & Culture Leadership Practice for BIE. She delivers senior and board-level interim and executive search solutions across all sectors and areas of HR and has a particular passion for business transformation projects.

Claire Paramo

Claire joined BIE in June 2019 to help scale the People & Culture Search Practice. She focuses on senior-level retained search assignments across all HR disciplines and brings experience hiring HR leaders on behalf of a range of global corporate, SME and start-up organisations.

Her recruitment career spans over 20 years and she has specialised in the senior HR market since 2004, recruiting in the UK and internationally.

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