How can future CPOs prepare for the role?

As the environment that businesses and their employees operate in remains challenging, the expectations placed on chief people officers are likely to shift

Eton Bridge

The chief people officer (CPO) role is changing and expanding. 

No longer is the focus simply on internal, operational HR issues, such as payroll and employee performance management. These days, CPOs must take an externally facing view, too. The job description includes creating a positive employer brand to help boost recruitment and developing a persuasive people plan to win over the investor community. 

Put simply, those with their sights set on the role will need to be more strategically involved than their predecessors. So says Olivia Sharp, partner within the HR practice at Eton Bridge Partners, international executive search, interim management and business consulting organisation. 

“The CPO role is evolving to include company culture, employee experience and values in terms of how they connect to the organisational purpose and vision,” she says. “So, it means HR leaders need different skills and capabilities as well as a different understanding of how to pull and push on the ’people’ lever to create value for the business.” 

In fact, “exceptional business partnering skills” is one of the top attributes chief executives expect to see in their chief people officers, according to Sharp. This is important because CEOs are generally the ones hiring for this role. 

“CEOs want a brother- or sister-in-arms to support them, and they want fully participating members of the senior leadership team, not just the ‘HR textbook answer’,” she says. 

In other words, CEOs are looking for candidates with commercial nous and a broad range of experience. On top of generalist HR knowledge, this could include a stint in the talent function, organisational effectiveness or driving cultural change. 

CEOs want a brother- or sister-in-arms to support them, and they want fully participating members of the senior leadership team, not just the ‘HR textbook answer’

Over the past 12 to 18 months, executives with an understanding of the future of work have also become increasingly attractive. Expertise here includes knowing how to use data effectively and being able to support digitisation.

Understanding a typical CPO profile

As to what a typical CPO profile looks like these days, Sharp points to Eton Bridge Partners’ recent CPO Pathways report. It is based on an evaluation of 7,500 CPO appointments around the world, in the past 24 months. 

The study reveals that nearly four in five CPOs had mostly recently operated in a generalist role, and many gained robust line management and broad HR experience along the way by becoming divisional or regional directors before assuming the top job. 

Only a slim majority (52%) of new CPO hires were external appointments last year, down from 59% in 2019, continuing a multi-year hiring trend for employers. The appetite for internal candidates is increasing. 

The function’s demographic makeup is overwhelmingly female with 76% of appointed CPOs identifying as female. The average age of female CPOs is 51 years old, while their male counterparts skew slightly older in the role at 53 years of age.

How to step into the role

Sharp suggests that anyone aspiring to this critical position should start by setting out their end goals as early as possible in their career. For instance, if the aim is to head up the people function in a FTSE 50 company, gaining international experience will likely be essential to showcase adaptability and success in diverse environments. 

Candidates will also need to demonstrate commercial understanding and an ability to build relationships with shareholders, investors and members of the finance function. Experience working in an operational role will likely prove useful, as will previous roles at a market, regional and business line level, Sharp notes. 

For those eager to take charge with, say, 10 years of experience under their belt, taking a generalist leadership role at a high-tech start-up or private equity-led scale-up may be the right move. Sharp says: “Start with your endpoint in mind and work out the boxes you need to tick to get there.” 

In any case, it will help to establish a healthy internal and external network of colleagues and peers. Developing and maintaining positive relationships is a vital skill that propels aspiring leaders toward the executive path. Sharp adds, do not neglect these valuable connections. Professional networks allow newcomers to build up a reputation within their sector and source job opportunities. 

“Ensure your radar is up and that it’s attuned to what’s happening elsewhere,” she says, adding that “brilliant leaders” are both people and commercially savvy.

Download your copy of Eton Bridge Partners’ CPO Pathways Report here