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Study Reveals Chief People Officers see a Steep Climb to the Future

SHRM's HR People + Strategy and Willis Towers Watson research finds organizations lag in reskilling, digital enablement

ARLINGTON, VA, January 8, 2020 — Most chief people officers (CPOs) realize they need new skills to meet the demand of the 21st century role, but few are prepared, citing a lack of development and investment from the C-suite. This is according to a new study by HR People + Strategy (SHRM's Executive Network of business and thought leaders in human resources) and with Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW), a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company.

The study, based on direct input from more than 500 executives, examined the key changes shaping the CPO role and identifies a pathway for developing and accelerating this next generation of HR leaders:

  • Virtually all respondents (99%) believe CPOs must have the agility and courage to evolve, yet only 35% said today's CPOs are prepared to respond.
  • More than nine in 10 respondents (94%) say it's important to explore accelerating the growth and development of future CPOs, but only about a third (35%) agree future CPOs are receiving the development they'll need to succeed.
  • Only one-third of respondents (36%) are prepared to think about how technology can be used to execute work in the future; only a quarter (26%) say they have the technical acumen to evaluate new technologies.

"As the pace of innovation and technological change accelerates in the workplace, CPOs will need to reinvent themselves," said Suzanne McAndrew, global head of talent, Willis Towers Watson and study co-author. "With disruption on the horizon, organizations will require strong, visionary people leaders who can think through the people and talent strategy, and work with management on the business strategy. Unfortunately, as our research shows, most CPOs are not prepared."

"CPOs sit at the intersection of innovation and growth within organizations with significant impact on all fronts," said Alexander Alonso, chief knowledge officer, SHRM. "This work confirms CPOs have the greatest potential to foster the evolution of enterprises by building their own pockets of expertise to meet future workforce demands."

The study also found that because work is constantly changing, training and development can no longer be considered episodic events but instead will require perpetual reskilling.

"As the nature of work changes, CPOs need to stop matching talent to jobs and start matching skills to tasks," said Lisa Connell, executive director, HR People + Strategy. "CPOs not only need to know how tech will expand or contract demand for different skills, they need to know which skill will be transformed by automation." Connell adds, "That's why HR needs to make continuous work reinvention a core capability and build the habit of continuous learning to keep up with this reinvention."

Respondents also recognize much progress is still needed with digital enablement and understanding how to apply digital technology and automation in the workplace. Only 42% had a favorable opinion of their organization's progress when it comes to embracing technology that builds a consumer experience for employees.

"While CPOs don't need to be technology experts, they must understand how changing technology can impact work and the workforce," said Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director, Willis Towers Watson and co-author of the study. "To prepare themselves for the future, CPOs should pursue the five imperatives our study revealed that highlight the skills, behaviors and experiences they'll need to manage the changing world of work."


About the study

The study, The Future Chief People Officer: Imagine, Invent, Ignite, is based on direct input from more than 520 corporate executives including CPOs, corporate board members, CEOs and other C-suite executives, and included a survey, in-depth interviews and focus groups. CPOs are the top-level management executives in charge of an organization's workforce. To read the full research report visit,

About HR People + Strategy

HR People + Strategy is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources. As SHRM's Executive Network, HR People + Strategy provides members access to forward-thinking exchanges, cutting-edge research and publications and executive-level networking opportunities. HR People + Strategy's mission is to lead the HR profession by creating a community that facilitates the dialogue between thought leaders and executive practitioners, creating solutions to drive success for people and organizations. For more information, visit

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential. Learn more at


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