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The most important hire a CEO will make: The CHRO

Note: A version of this was previously published on Forbes.

I’ve worked with hundreds of organizations over the years, helping them scale strong leadership cultures with accountable leaders. One of the critical success factors in this challenging work is the relationship that exists between the CEO and the CHRO, or head of human resources.

When the CEO hires a weak HR leader, it’s going to be difficult to drive an ambitious corporate and people agenda. However, when the CHRO is exceptional, and the CEO appreciates the value they bring, then amazing things can happen.

The CHRO is not just an HR executive but a strategic partner to the CEO, responsible for shaping the organization’s culture, nurturing talent and driving its overall success. Collaboration between the CEO and CHRO is key to building a thriving organization.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid?

There are a few potential pitfalls that could hinder the success of hiring a great CHRO—often relating to alignment. If the CEO isn’t actively involved in the hiring process for the CHRO and doesn’t clearly communicate their expectations and strategic goals, it can lead to a misalignment between the CHRO’s vision and the company’s overall direction.

Similarly, hiring a CHRO who doesn’t align with the company’s values and culture can lead to friction and hinder their ability to effectively shape the organization’s culture.

Finally, avoid making your focus too narrow on HR. Hiring a CHRO who solely focuses on traditional HR functions without aligning them with the broader business strategy can limit their impact. Make sure the CHRO is capable of strategic thinking beyond just HR operations.

What key qualities should CEOs look for in a CHRO?

In my experience, here’s what I’ve seen from the best CHROs.

  • Strategic business visionary: Like other great senior executives, a great CHRO possesses a strategic mindset, a core understanding of the business and a deep appreciation that people are the heart and soul of any organization’s success. They can provide strategic counsel on talent management, organizational design and employee engagement.
  • Strong communicator and translator: Great CHROs should have the ability to translate HR initiatives in a way that is aligned with the company’s overall vision and goals. When they speak, they speak in plain business terms, without using HR jargon. In the end, they can effectively communicate and influence, ensuring that HR initiatives are embraced and understood throughout the company.
  • Proven transformational change agent: CHROs should possess a proven track record of driving organizational transformation and must be adept at anticipating future talent needs.
  • Trusted advisor: The truly great CHROs are trusted advisors to the CEO, the executive team and the board. They possess exceptional interpersonal skills, enabling them to build strong relationships across all levels of the organization.
  • Fearless: The best CHROs I’ve worked with are fearless. They know when to respectfully challenge the CEO constructively, providing fresh perspectives and questioning assumptions when necessary. They also do not fear challenging their peers on the executive team to hold them accountable for key priorities.
  • Culture champion: While every leader needs to be a culture champion, the CHRO sets the tone in helping shape and nurture the organizational culture. They understand that culture drives behavior and that behavior drives results.
  • Uncompromising integrity: The best CHROs bring a strong ethical focus to their roles. They work to ensure that their words and actions are aligned and are seen to have tremendous integrity.
  • Accountability: Successful CHROs will foster a culture of accountability, recognizing and rewarding excellence while promoting fairness and equity throughout the organization. They also set the tone personally and ensure they have built a strong HR team that models the values and leadership expectations of the organization.
  • Data-driven: The CHRO needs to embrace analytics and data-driven decision-making. Moreover, they bring insights anchored in data to the executive team and the board.
  • Sense of humor: The work of a CHRO is demanding and they deal with serious issues every single day. The best CHROs don’t take themselves too seriously and bring a sense of fun to their work every day.

How can CEOs support CHROs in building thriving organizations?

Once you have a CHRO in place with these qualities, it’s important to support their success. The CEO should provide clear expectations, support their development through mentorship and coaching and empower them to make strategic decisions. The CEO can foster a culture where the CHRO has a seat at the leadership table, allowing their voice to be heard and their insights valued.

While the role of the CHRO has evolved significantly, a great CHRO possesses the strategic vision, trusted advisory skills, culture-building prowess and data-driven mindset to drive an organization’s success. By prioritizing these qualities, avoiding common pitfalls and actively supporting their CHRO’s success, CEOs can unleash the power of their people and create a competitive advantage in the ever-evolving business landscape.

About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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