CHRO, Yo

John Whitaker Bad HR, John Whitaker

So…I’m throwing my hat in the ring, folks. Chief Human Resources Officer/Chief People Officer (CHRO & CPO, respectively), whatever the position is called at your company, I’m stretching my wings and hoping not to get clipped. The incumbent at my company took an unexpected early departure, and now there’s a big, fat vacuum at the top of the HR totem pole.

But here’s the catch: having never been a Chief People Officer/CHRO, perhaps some research on the most critical traits of said position would be helpful, yes? A quick search shows no lack of opinions on the subject, but frankly, the varied viewpoints are only partially helpful. (Some are even silly – ‘relevant’ and ‘well connected’?) But then it occurred to me – I’ve seen any number of senior HR executives in my career, so maybe I need to focus on what not to be.

Not surprisingly, this list was much easier to compile. I had a list of 10 no-no’s, but for the sake of all of us, I consolidated it into these three killers. Here are the CHRO deal-breakers based on the keen observations of a man who has been around the HR block a few times:

  1. Comfortable – I put this first because it’s the biggest “trap” in the role. Joining the C-Suite can be pretty heady stuff; the pay, the title, the office, the awesome headline on your LinkedIn profile – it’s the summit of the HR profession. So why risk it? Stop challenging the CEO, ignore the urge to buck the rest of the executive team and just blend into the paneling. I used to refer to this as the chickensh*t seat because the comfort of sitting in the ivory tower outweighs the courage it takes to buck the CEO.
  2. Unapproachable – Face it, you’re “HR.” When you enter the room people clam up, clean up, reference the need to be appropriate – it’s a regular laugh riot, Alice. Wait, they don’t do that to you? Then you, my friend, are approachable. If you are carrying an air about you that says ‘watch your a**’, you are missing the essence of your role – the people need to know they have someone who, while not necessarily an advocate, is at the very least someone who will listen.
  3. Embedded – This is a toughie. One of the differentiators for an effective HR executive is the ability to link human resources objectives to the success of the business, right? That may be why over half of all CHROs come from business units outside of HR. Can you find the fine line between being a business executive and still keeping the needs of the people of the company? This may be the single toughest line to walk for a potential HR Executive – if you are embedded in the business, you are dismissing the people and vice versa.

I can tell you that I’ve succeeded and failed at each of these at various times of my career, so I promise you I’m not shooting arrows at any of the execs I’ve observed over the years. None of us know what goes on inside the Star Chamber, so there’s always the chance I’m blowing smoke. In the last 20 years, I’ve worked/consulted for 15 companies and had the opportunity to see some wonderfully talented and capable leaders – the fact is, they actually reached the summit I’m seeking to attain, so maybe this is sour kumquats.

The point is, if we are truly playing HR Hardball, it’s time to stop being all hat & no cattle.

And…maybe if I consciously avoid the pitfalls above in my quest to be a powerhouse CHRO, I’ll find the exit within six months for being a pain in the a**. But what a six months that will be.

John Whitaker
John Whitaker (“Whit”) is Vice President of Talent Acquisition for DentalOne Partners and the founder of HRHardball.com (2008). He specializes in building and developing strong recruiting teams who are unafraid of “kicking the ant pile.” Like most Texans, he loves to tell a story (especially those that include an armadillo or a poker game) and cutting through the chaff…don’t take it personal.