A Guide to Hiring a People Leader to Drive Transformational Growth at Your Organization
For any founder or CEO that believes in the power of investing in people, hiring a Chief Human Resources Officer (“CHRO”) can be one of the best business decisions you make. That is, of course, if you know what or who to look for.
But first: there are some title variations for this role that should be noted. While we often use “CHRO” as a catch-all for the de facto Head of People function, some organizations have adopted monikers like “Chief People Officer,” “Head of People,” “Head of Talent”, “Chief Culture Officer” and “Chief Talent Officer.” All of these title variations speak to both the evolution of the CHRO role and the degree of emphasis some organizations place on specific cultural, talent or people management aspects of the HR function. Needless to say, there’s no right or wrong approach to the title decision, as long as you recognize that this person will almost certainly need oversight and understanding of every component of the traditional and evolved HR function. (NOTE: For this playbook, we are going to use “CHRO” interchangeably to describe all of the aforementioned title variations)
The other elephant in the room that needs to be addressed is the fact that many founders and CEO may be unfamiliar with the charter of a CHRO or may have preconceived notions about it being simply a “head of the people” function. In fact, a true CHRO is much, much more.
The right CHRO can bring step-functions of improvement to your business’s culture and organizational efficiency. Not only can a CHRO bring your company values to life in spectacular ways, but they can also help connect every employee’s needs to the business’s strategic goals. A CHRO can become your most trusted confidante in navigating a rapidly-evolving talent market, an executive coach to your C-Suite, and a champion for creating a more equitable workplace. What could be a more valuable asset to a leader who is trying to scale their business to IPO or beyond?
Now comes the kicker. CHRO is a notoriously difficult job and an even more challenging to hire for. Not only are there a smaller pool of candidates compared to other C-suite positions, but today only 55% of CEOs see their CHRO as a key player in enterprise strategy. Furthermore, CHROs are experiencing record levels of burnout brought on by the added stress of navigating a remote, post-pandemic workplace. There are a litany of factors that make this a challenging role to hire for; however, here are few important ones to call out:
There’s no playbook for leading a people organization.
Even the most experienced CHROs have to be comfortable operating at a higher level of uncertainty than most other C-suite leaders. This is because the nature of work and the dynamics of an organization are constantly changing. CHROs are continually putting out fires while trying to stay ahead of cultural and organization issues that might impact the business 1, 2, or even five years down the road.
CEO and organizational values often evolve or become misaligned.
CEOs can pivot and change how they run a company - that’s their privilege. But CHROs have to balance what the CEO wants with what the rest of the organization needs. They have to advocate for everyone, which means if there's a fundamental rift in the values and culture the CEO wants and what the employees actually experience, the CHRO may not be well-positioned to perform their job.
It’s a lonely job.
CHROs make decisions that impact the entire organization. They often have to handle sensitive matters in the workplace, from individual complaints to broader feelings of inequity, and a lot of the time that information is privileged. CHROs often have to advise on or perform layoffs and terminations and act as intermediary and disciplinarians.
Going into the CHRO hiring process with an understanding of the unique challenges this individual will face is critical for success. However, for reasons we will lay out in this playbook, the right CHRO can also become a powerful asset to the growth and scale of your success.
What this CHRO Hiring Playbook endeavors to provide is a template for what “great” looks like. Leveraging insights from six exemplary people leaders within The Circle community, we breakdown what the CHRO role entails, the qualities needed to perform the job well, and what to look for at each stage of growth. The leaders featured in this playbook have both a deep passion for their craft and a track record of success growing and scaling People organizations. Most importantly, they were gracious to share their firsthand experience navigating the complexities of the role.
Our hope is that this playbook broadens your perspective on when, why, and how to hire a CHRO, and gives you some tactical insights on identifying and successfully onboarding the right candidate.
So if you’re ready to find a people leader that can take your organization to the next level of growth, read on.
What Does a CHRO do?
Put simply: a CHRO oversees all HR and people-related functions within an organization. But that is far too simple a definition for what this role actually entails. The domain of responsibilities is vast and can include (though certainly is not limited to):
Compensation, payroll, and benefits
Learning and Development
Employee relations and conflict resolution
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (“DEIB”)
Michele Bousqet, Chief People Officer at Strava describe the objectives and charter of a CHRO as follows:
Michele illuminates here that CHROs have a charter that extends well beyond their functional area. Yes, they oversee the People function and all of the systems, processes, policies and people involved with it. However, a CHRO’s mandate – like all other C-level executives – is to support organizational growth and scale. They seek to drive this outcome by fostering a culture of high-performance and high engagement both within the C-suite and across the entire organization. Concurrently, they are helping the CEO bring the culture of the company to life so that the organization is living up to its values and creating a space where every employee feels appreciated and empowered to do their best work.
When Should You Hire a CHRO?
CEOs might consider hiring a CHRO after achieving a certain growth milestone (usually Series B+), or around the time they start filling out other positions within the C-suite. This can be the right approach in a company that is growing organically and has great HR operations, recruiting, or people ops leaders or a reliable professional employer organization (“PEO”).
However, sometimes there may be signs that a more serious people or cultural issue is bubbling underneath the surface and threatening the growth of the business. Some of these red flags might include:
Issues Attracting or Retaining Key Talent
A company is struggling to maintain a healthy talent pipeline or losing star performers or employee turnover is higher than industry-level or competitive benchmarks.
Core HR Systems, Policies and Infrastructure are Missing
The people function may not be growing as fast as the rest of the business and important processes like onboarding, performance management and upskilling talent are falling by the wayside because the People team is stretched too thin, too busy putting out fires, or lacking directional strategy.
Employee Experience Doesn’t Match CEO Expectations
The CEO starts to notice that something feels off about the culture. Perhaps employees seem detached or are too siloed in their functional areas. Pulse surveys might indicate broader employee dissatisfaction. Or perhaps employee engagement and productivity are not at the levels the CEO needs.
Workforce Expansion is on the Horizon
The organization is on the precipice of transformative growth either through a dramatic hiring spree, international expansion or a company acquisition. This will likely impact talent, cultural, compliance and HR operational dynamics and require a dedicated overseer.
4 Qualities to Look for in a Great CHRO Candidate
Every CHRO you interview is going to have a different resume of skills and experiences. Some may have a generalist HR background, others may have built a career as a HR business partner or recruiter. And then of course, some leaders (including one exceptional example in this playbook) may not have held a career in HR but in another relevant operational area of the business . We’ll explore some of those archetypes In the next section of this playbook. However, our experts did reveal some critical qualities that every great CHRO needs to have to be successful in the role:
#1 Business Acumen
CEOs might believe they need to hire a deeply experienced HR leader. While HR or business partner experience is important, a great CHRO isn’t just focused on or knowledgeable of the People function. A CHRO candidate has to understand or demonstrate the capacity to contribute to the growth of the entire business. Remember that this is a C-level position and, as such, CHROs should be expected to meaningfully contribute to every aspect of the organization.
L. David Kingsley, Chief People Officer at Illumio, articulates why this quality is important:
#2 Willingness to Embrace Uncertainty
A great CHRO has to be comfortable leading through uncertainty and problem solving with both empathy and objectivity. They have to be willing to admit what they don’t know, which is why the best CHRO candidates lead with asking good questions rather than providing prescriptive answers.
#3 An Exceptional Listener
It might sound obvious but the ability to listen is critical to success in this role. CHROs have to lend an ear to both the executive team and each and every employee in the organization. They’re constantly listening for signals that indicate an underlying issue or opportunity to improve workplace culture and then operationalizing a strategy.
#4 Passionate About People
CHROs have to have a high emotional intelligence and a belief that every individual at the company matters. Ideally, this quality will be revealed through examples of programs or policies a CHRO has implemented at prior organizations to support employees in the workplace. However, CEOs should also probe deeper to understand a CHRO candidate’s philosophy on the People function and vision for the ideal employee experience.
But most importantly, CEOs want a CHRO that aligns their values. Sarah Flaherty, VP of People at Orum explains:
Do You Need a VP, Head of People, or CHRO?
CEOs sometimes get hung up on job titles and roles – incidentally, this is an area where your CHRO should be able to provide some structure and direction. When it comes to bringing in a CHRO or uplevelling an existing VP or Head of People, there’s no one right approach. VPs and Heads of People at earlier-stage companies often oversee many (if not all) of the functional responsibilities and programs that a CHRO does. But CHRO is a C-level title and that comes with a certain level of exposure and expectation.
Your CHRO has to be comfortable making decisions alongside your CMO, CRO and other C-suite executives. As David Kingsley highlighted, CHROs see the C-suite as their first team. That’s a dynamic that the CEO has to help cultivate. In other words, CEOs have to ensure that their most senior People person is seen as a strategic business partner. CHROs are also increasingly becoming key contributors and stakeholders in the boardroom. Therefore, you’ll want to ensure that whomever you choose or upskill into this role is ready for that responsibility.
Elevating your existing Head of People or bringing in an external CHRO hire can also be a powerful signal to your organization about how you value the People function and the overall employee experience. However, as our experts pointed out, CEOs themselves also have to see CHRO as a C-level position, and be willing to embrace the opportunities that come with that designation.
In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into specific qualities of and job responsibilities for CHROs at various stages of company growth.
What They Do:
Build or optimize the HR, People Ops and recruiting functions
Monitor and improve employee engagement and performance
Identify and address talent gaps
Typically Hired When:
Company is at Series A+ or has more than 20 employees
Company is planning to dramatically expand headcount
CEO wants to reshape or “fix” the company culture
It is around the time that there is product-market fit and a defined growth strategy that a dedicated People leader may be needed in early stage companies. This leader is going to have to connect the needs of the organization and the employees and bring a lot of structure and organization to the People function. They may have a core focus on recruiting, retention or performance management; but they’re going to address all of it.
Who to Look for:
Someone with HR business partner experience at an early stage company and that has scaled headcount to where you expect to be in the next 1-2 years.
You may want someone with demonstrated expertise in your organization’s biggest problem area. For example, if performance management is an area that is lacking, you’ll want to over-index for someone that has built those types of programs before and knows how to operate them.
For companies that manage high volumes of contract or independent freelancers, you may want a People leader that is well-versed in all of those technical, administrative, legal and compensation complexities.
While CEOs may be looking for more of an operator at this level of growth, there are benefits to bringing in a more experienced hire.
Stella Monteiro, Chief People Officer at Synctera explains what a go-to-market CHRO can bring to the table:
What They Do:
Grow and scale the People team.
Breakdown silos across the organization, including within the C-suite.
Activate culture, optimize the People function, and champion initiatives like DEIB.
Typically Hired When:
Organization is at Series B+ or and 200 or more employees
The functional parts of HR and People Ops are there, but optimization is required.
The company needs a 3-5 year vision for the people organization.
Your business and headcount is growing, your leadership team is focused on scale - this is the sweet spot where a CHRO is going to lead organizational transformation. All of the core responsibilities and People functions we mentioned previously are now built and being rigorously optimized. At every junction, the CHRO is looking for ways to optimize company culture and employee engagement while helping to steer the long-term direction of the People organization (while dealing with plenty of crises, of course). Most importantly, the CHRO is partnering with the CEO to establish a high-performing leadership team capable of collaborating on tough decisions.
Who to Look for:
Someone that knows how to “ruthlessly prioritize”. The CHRO’s checklist of action items is going to grow faster than they can manage, even as they build out their team. They’ll need to use a mix of qualitative and quantitative data to decide which areas need immediate focus and present recommendations to the CEO. When interviewing candidates, you’ll want to scrutinize how they’ve measured HR effectiveness in the past and leverage a data-driven strategy within their function.
Someone that can make quick decisions. As many CHROs learned in the early days of the pandemic, this role forces you to pivot quickly. Every top-level decision the C-suite makes will have a rippling impact across the organization and it’s the CHRO’s job to figure out the best and most effective way to communicate to employees, and then measure the impact on engagement and well-being.
CEOs need to give their CHRO space to solve big problems (more on that in the next section), but also stay very closely aligned on the top priorities. Devon Velthaus, VP, People at Zola,, explains why growth stage CEOs need to build strong relationships with their people leaders:
What They Do:
Supports IPO readiness
Oversees and refines the People strategy and culture
Adheres to public listing compliance and governance standards
Advises or actively participates in the Comp Committee
Typically Hired When:
Organization is 1-2 years from an IPO or already public
As the company moves closer to going public, the CHRO will continue to operate in largely the same capacity but with two caveats. First, they’ll be supporting the IPO readiness process, including documenting all of the HR policies and procedures and establishing a charter or selecting board members for the Compensation Committee. Second, they’ll be preparing the company and employees for life after the IPO. Their biggest areas of focus will likely involve transitioning from a private to public company equity compensation plan, creating more robust internal corporate communications, and gathering all of metrics on headcount, employee turnover, attrition, and compensation that need to be reported during quarterly earnings releases. Once the company is public, the CHRO will also need to partner with Comp Committee discussions as it pertains to executive pay, equity needs and other people-related issues.
In general, CHROs of public or soon-to-be-public companies need to be ready to operate under a high-level of scrutiny, as ZipRecruiter Chief People Officer Amy Garefis explains:
Who to Look for:
A CHRO with public company experience can be valuable, as they’ll be familiar with the IPO transition process and can help identify the systems, people and processes that need to be assembled.
Someone with a background or deep experience in finance, compensation, or compliance. Going public means there are going to be tighter controls around information disclosure and internal and external communications. CHROs have to manage more complex equity plans and be able to communicate and contextualize major stock price swings and financial events to the broader employee base. This is not to say that the role arbitrarily becomes only financial-focused in nature; however, it is a larger component of the job.
The CHRO’s First 90 Days
Equally as important as finding the right CHRO candidate is setting that person up for success. Your new CHRO is going to be extremely busy in the first few months. According to our experts, here’s what they should be focusing on and what CEOs can do to support them:
Building Relationships with the Other Executives
Hopefully your CHRO started building connections with the rest of the C-suite during the interview process, but the first 90 days are a critical time when the CHRO needs to build trust. CHROs should be meeting frequently with each department head, digging into their biggest pain points and talent gaps. Through these conversations, they’re going to develop a more holistic understanding of the leadership culture and ultimately what they can or should change about it.
What CEOs can do: Stay engaged with your CHRO throughout this process. Make yourself available for daily check-ins (even if it’s on Slack) and once-a-week recaps. If the CHRO isn’t getting the information or exposure they need from the other leaders, it’s the CEO’s job to help facilitate those connections.
Looking for the Lowest-Hanging Fruit
In addition to creating a broader People strategy, your CHRO should also be looking for quick wins. This includes launching any programs or initiatives that might boost employee morale, conducting pulse surveys to measure employee satisfaction, or identifying gaps in HR compliance policies.
What CEOs can do: Be supportive and stay engaged with your CHRO. While they’re simultaneously learning about the company, they’re also learning your leadership style and preference on communication. They’re trying to deliver value in the short-term and align on strategic goals in the long-term.
Providing an Honest Assessment of the Culture
Within the first few months, your CHRO should have a good handle on what the existing culture is at the company and where it’s falling short of employee expectations. Most CHROs are not going to recommend a complete overhaul of the culture (unless something is very wrong), but they may unearth some inconvenient truths about the company’s leadership and cultural values.
What CEOs can do: Keep an open mind. Remember that you hired this person because you were aligned on values and they have expertise in areas that will benefit the entire organization. Trust between the CEO and CHRO is only going to come from honest feedback and transparency - it benefits no one when opinions are undermined or overruled.
Bringing a CHRO into your organization can unlock transformative growth and collaboration. On a personal and professional level, CEOs should have a strong relationship with their CHRO and there should be mutual respect and alignment on values.
Great CHROs leverage the collective human capital of their organization and trusted networks of their peers to continue to improve workplace culture and performance. They are incredible business partners - and we’re lucky to have met some incredible CHROs right here in The Circle.
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