The saying goes that it’s loneliest at the top, and unfortunately, I’ve found that to be true far too often. As CEOs are kept up at night, plagued by workforce issues such as human capital, wage inflation and workforce instability, who can they turn to for advice or even just a listening ear? This is where the chief human resources officer comes into play—a critical support system for the CEO when leveraged effectively.
Last fall, SHRM launched its first collaborative effort with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania—the CEO Academy. At two CEO Academy conferences this year, I had the chance to meet with CEOs from across the nation. Surrounded by the top business executives in the U.S., I posed the question, “As CEOs, what qualities do you look for in your CHROs?” I was met with an array of answers, but some key qualities emerged. CEOs want what most humans want—someone smart they can trust who will genuinely help them. It boiled down to three C’s: competency, confidant and courage.
Competency is critical to the role of a CHRO as they must excel not only at management but also at understanding HR and the role HR plays in guiding organizations. CHROs must serve as the subject matter experts on all things HR and be able to advise CEOs on strategies in the best interest of their organizations. Now more than ever, when dealing with topics such as shepherding AI into the workplace and wage inflation, CHROs need to know their material, walk in authority and be decisive in their actions.
The second C is Confidant. CEOs are looking for their CHROs to serve as trusted consiglieres in the day-to-day affairs of the workplace. CEOs bear the responsibility for the entire organization, but this level of responsibility brings with it a high expectation of confidentiality, leaving them feeling alone as they carry the weight of the organization on their shoulders. They cannot share many of their workforce challenges, even with members of their senior management team. CEOs need a confidant who can provide psychological safety, and it’s here that the CHRO steps in. The CHRO can’t be effective without the CEO’s trust and belief, and this can only come from closeness.
Finally, the third C is Courage. CEOs are only as successful as the people they surround themselves with. Contrary to popular belief, most CEOs do not want their staffs made up of a bunch of “yes” men and women. Diversity of thought and a willingness to push back strengthens a CEO and an organization. Ideas must be able to withstand testing and thorough scrutinization. Speaking up to a CEO isn’t always easy. Neither is advocating to do the right thing when it’s tempting to let something slide. But to be an effective CHRO, you must have the courage to speak and act, holding those around you accountable and thereby protecting your CEO from the fallout that would inevitably result from immoral or unethical behavior within a company.
These three C’s are critical to having a high-performing CHRO. As we’re entering a new millennium of workplace culture with inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D), workplace technology immersion and employee activism, the role of the CHRO has never been more critical as a CEO ally. And as we continue to engage with CEOs through these CEO Academy events, we will work together to create a more effective CEO-HR partnership.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP
President and CEO, SHRM