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The Rise of the Millennial CHRO

A new wave of HR leaders is reshaping the HR leadership role. They are more analytically driven and they're leveraging digital tools to learn more about their workforces.


A woman is giving a presentation to a group of people in an office.

​Millennial people leaders are coming for the C-suite. In fact, they're already there. With accelerated CHRO turnover—thanks to a myriad of factors, including higher retirement and burnout—a new cohort of younger professionals is rising to the top, bringing a new vision for the future of HR.

These newly minted executives have markedly different generational ideas for talent strategy, influenced by their lived experiences in and out of the workforce. They've experienced the Great Recession, crushing student loan debt, a heightened push for social justice, digital transformation and much more. Coupled with HR's recent pivot from a mainly compliance-focused function to one that's expected to serve as a trusted, strategic business partner, millennial talent heads are broadening HR's scope by centering data, holistic wellness and the acutely human element of human resources.

The new wave of HR heads are more analytically driven than their predecessors, and they're leveraging the many digital tools at their disposal to learn more about their workforces.

They're assessing turnover rates, employee sentiment, promotion rates across demographics and real-time engagement levels, says Brian Kropp, a managing director at Accenture who works closely with HR leaders. He's observed a particular interest among younger leaders in harnessing more active data collection techniques and building new listening strategies with the help of technology. Those endeavors will only increase as A.I. moves forcefully into HR.

Already, some are using machine learning to predict which employees are most likely to quit.

One such millennial HR head is Heather Dunn, the 36-year-old chief people officer at recruiting software company Gem. "I actually found my way into HR at 16 at an insurance company back in Michigan," she said. Gem says embracing analytics and technology has helped automate certain processes for her team, freeing it up to focus more on talent strategy that aligns with the business's goals.

Gem uses a third-party data analytics platform to keep tabs on general personnel tracking like attrition trends and headcount costs, which Dunn says a large internal team would once have managed. The tool also creates digestible dashboards that Dunn can share with other executives and bring to board meetings. "In the past, you had a big team that ran that level of data for you, or you had a really clunky system to do it within your HR system," says Dunn.

"It's about finding efficiency gains but also being able to move with more velocity for your employees with some of those technology additions," she adds. The shift leaves her more time to focus on the actual people within the organization—a calling card of her generation, which embraces deeper employee connections.

"Speaking for myself and many of my [peers], we spend a lot of time getting to know folks deeply," she says. "There is sort of a personal level of touch and investment that is different."

KeyAnna Schmiedl, chief human experience officer at HR software company Workhuman, graduated from college in 2008 and jokes that she's an elder millennial. She says several generational experiences, such as 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have shaped how she approaches her role and caring for employees.

"We went from my grandparents being able to drop me off at the airport to not being able to have more than three ounces of liquid in my bag. [Millennials have] had to fundamentally shift how we think about the world and decide how we want to curate the experience of our interactions."

As a result, she says, she's constantly striving to keep transparency and humility at the forefront of her work.

Workhuman conducts internal employee surveys and interviews to check the organization's temperature. Schmiedl also uses the company's mood-tracking tool and employee focus groups, allowing her to track sentiment benchmarks and areas for growth in real time.

Kyle Lacy, 31, head of people ops at revenue operations company Go Nimbly, says he focuses more on policies and initiatives that support his employees' overall well-being and work-life balance. "My initial work experience came from much more corporate settings that did feel very rigid and had very formal policies and their own way of working," says Lacy. "I see you can approach things in very different ways."

He recently led efforts to shift from a traditional accrual-based time-off policy with tenure milestones to a flexible structure reminiscent of unlimited PTO. The flexible time-off policy mandates that employees take at least 20 days off each year and provides a workflow monitor to help them track the number of days used. Workers get a nudge if they take too few days off each quarter.

"Seeing that employees are using it and taking time off [helps me] understand that the benefit is really being able to disengage from work and not feel burnt out," said Lacy.

Though not unique to young leaders, the enhanced focus on employee well-being is a top priority among millennials. Matthew Bidwell, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the academic director of its CHRO program, points to an uptick in student interest in employee wellness strategies.

Of course, companies have run wellness programs over the past decade, but Bidwell says millennial HR leaders are zeroing in on mental health and its destigmatization in the workplace. He says interest will likely grow, pointing to the U.S. Surgeon General's recent warnings and guidance regarding mental health at work and the decline in mental well-being among young people now entering the workforce.

"These are growing problems," he says. "If I want an effective workforce, this is something I really need to be thinking about."

It's an issue Dunn says is front of mind for her. "As a leader, I have a lot of empathy for what folks have been facing external to the marketplace or internal to the marketplace. It's a bit tone deaf, in some ways, to not get up in front of the company and acknowledge that mental health is a real thing," she says. "We're asking a lot of folks, and in return, the least we can do is to make sure folks know we support them in that process."

For Dunn, it's partially an outcome of the yearslong pandemic and reflects millennials' placement sandwiched between Gen X and Gen Z.

"We have so many generations in the workforce right now, and we're in the middle in some ways. There's this [ability] to relate to some of what the younger generation might be going through, but also be able to translate across generations," says Dunn. "It's an increasingly important skill, especially as we think about the needs of each generation in the workforce."


This story was originally featured on Fortune.com. This article was written by Amber Burton from Fortune and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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