How the CHRO moved to the top of the table

With unprecedented people challenges comes unparalleled power for the human resource professionals helping organisations navigate the HR demands of coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has given the chief human resources officer (CHRO) a voice and influence like never before.

With the crisis initially playing out as a workplace or people challenge, and now a humanitarian emergency, HR leaders have been offered an opportunity to prove their worth to the executive team by helping steer their organisation through widespread uncertainty. And significant numbers have seized the chance.

Jo Taylor, managing director of HR consultancy Let’s Talk Talent, explains: “There has to be a ship’s captain and it has tended to be HR making sense of the chaos, hand in hand with the chief executive. CEOs have been relying on their guidance while trying to keep the lights on, so HR has embraced the adage ‘it’s our time to shine’ and done so.”

Chris Underwood, managing director of executive search and leadership development consultancy Adastrum Consulting, agrees, pointing out that the current CHRO role as crisis manager may be a new one, but on the whole the profession has risen to the challenge.

In the past, they were often seen as either the ‘fun police’ or ‘a bit fluffy’

“As a collective, HR leaders have done really well, so they now have a voice and their stock is high at senior level and among colleagues,” he says. “While in the past, they were often seen as either the ‘fun police’ or ‘a bit fluffy’, their influence on how the organisation should operate has been front and centre this time.”

In other words, the CHRO role has, almost overnight, become less tactical and more strategic, not least as the crisis has “given people the ability to rip up the HR rulebook and rewrite it”, says Taylor.

This scenario has resulted in those HR leaders who have embraced the opportunity becoming “more like the conductor of an orchestra by taking a more holistic view and collaborating with other functions to make things happen”.

Shifting the balance from operations to strategy

Another central consideration for HR leaders, meanwhile, has been in finding an appropriate balance between undertaking operational and strategic activities. In practice, this has meant ensuring the right team is in place to deal with day-to-day issues, while HR leaders provide not only oversight, but also insight and influence at the executive committee level.

The single biggest differential between those whose star is now shining, or not, is attitude, says Taylor. “Those with a growth mindset have flourished, while those with a fixed mindset have struggled,” she says.

The importance of having a growth mindset can most clearly be seen in the newly adopted CHRO role of change manager. While HR leaders were traditionally seen as risk averse with a focus on “keeping people out of trouble and the organisation out of court”, throughout the pandemic they have had to act with “previously unimaginable flexibility, agility and speed”, says Underwood.

Those with a growth mindset have flourished, while those with a fixed mindset have struggled

As a result, not only have HR leaders facilitated and driven workplace change, ranging from support and communication around remote working to digital skills development, they have also changed the rules of engagement to ensure they are now more based around people.

One example is the shift from a traditional one-size-fits-all approach to policies and procedures towards a more nuanced, personalised way of dealing with things to cope with the inherent complexity of the current situation.

Put another way, the humanitarian nature of the crisis has led to “the ‘human’ being put back into HR” as a result of the growing realisation that “workers are human beings rather than just employees”, says Brian Kropp, head of research for analyst firm Gartner’s HR practice. This means the CHRO role has increasingly become that of a guardian of wellbeing.

“There’s an increasing sense that employees are now stakeholders in running their companies rather than just shareholders, which is leading to more humane ways of working,” he points out. “ESG [environmental, social and governance] was building before COVID hit, but the pandemic has created an environment in which organisations are being tested to see if they’re true to their values and those that are will thrive post-pandemic.”

HR leaders become guardians of wellbeing

Tongwen Zhao, who joined Quorn Foods as director of people and planet in July, agrees. The company has brought HR and sustainability together under a single remit to ensure environmental values are both embedded into its culture and reflected in its employer brand. Zhao expects this approach to become more widespread as climate concerns among internal and external talent pools continue to mount.

“The ability to integrate your people responsibilities with other areas of the business is an essential weapon in the arsenal of the modern HR leader,” she says.

Another essential skill, in a world in which technology is increasingly disrupting and changing everything, is being tech savvy. On the one hand, this means HR leaders have to understand which tasks and processes the organisation would benefit most from automating, not least to free line managers’ time up to focus on supporting their team’s needs.

On the other, it is about knowing how to use data insights and analysis effectively to plan, exert suitable influence over senior executive decision-making and make appropriate business cases for action in key people areas, ranging from recruitment to talent management.

In fact, Kropp says, although it may seem counter-intuitive, the effective use of data actually helps HR leaders to “support employees in a more humane way” by enabling them to combine empathy with business acumen.

Linda Mountford, HR director at canned fish brand John West, says it is essential to “recognise the power of data and technology in transforming the entire employee experience”.

Technology is the cornerstone of HR success

Taylor agrees. “Technology is the cornerstone. You don’t have to be a whiz at IT – you have a team for that – but knowing what’s possible with technology and data is important now and will be even more vital in future,” she says.

To illustrate the point, Taylor cites an article published in the Harvard Business Review in August entitled 21 HR Jobs of the Future. The study contends that of 60 new roles that are likely to be created in the field over the next ten years, 21 will have high levels of organisational impact. Of this 21, more than half (12) will include a mid-to-high tech component, while the rest, which consist mainly of employee wellbeing and experience roles, will have a low-to-mid tech element.

But as part of this shift to a more automated world, Kropp also expects the CHRO role to morph correspondingly, adopting a much stronger vendor management element. While roles, such as HR business partner, will remain and newly created positions will come about, he anticipates other jobs in areas like recruitment and learning and development will increasingly be outsourced.

“There’ll be fewer solutions developed in-house and more partnering will take place,” he forecasts. “We’re already seeing a shift due to the current economic environment as people look to get rid of fixed costs, so the future is coming at us now.”

Nonetheless, Taylor does not expect to see the demise of the HR function or a drop in the status of its leader, any time soon, even if the operations side of the equation does contract due to automation.

“The human-centricity of HR won’t disappear, so while the operations side may shrink, the people side, which deals with things like diversity and inclusion and employee experience, will grow. And successful HR leaders will become increasingly adaptive, imaginative and think virtual first,” she concludes.