Partner and co-leader of Russell Reynolds Associates’ global human resources practice Russell Reynolds Associates
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Evolution of HR leaders
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HR leaders are the new disruptors but does your team have the skills needed to succeed?

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CHROs have been tasked with bringing change to organisations in the post-Covid professional landscape, but a wider skill set is required if they are to meet the challenge.

15th Sep 2021
Partner and co-leader of Russell Reynolds Associates’ global human resources practice Russell Reynolds Associates
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The essential attributes of a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) have evolved over the years, even more so since the Covid-19 pandemic undeniably impacted workforces around the world. Planning CHRO succession at a time of huge disruption has brought a new set of challenges into focus. 

From the future of work and ESG issues, to evolving talent and diversity strategies, so much has changed in a short period of time. But it begs the question: are today's HR leaders ready for tomorrow's challenges?

Over the past year, the global business landscape has faced a seemingly endless stream of challenges, with HR leaders playing a pivotal role in initiating and continuing to drive forward their business’ rapid response to them. However, change has brought with it risk aversion among companies which is evident in our recent study of FTSE 350 CHROs.

We’ve been given a stronger voice, proven that we can stay relevant to the businesses we are in and, as a result, have helped our organisations survive

More than half of CHROs appointed since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, have already held the same role in their careers, while 41% of the appointments made since 2018 were experienced CHROs, from March 2020 onwards they constituted 55%. 

Relying on tried and tested talent might seem sensible in the short run but this approach might endanger companies’ ability to look longer-term and will certainly reduce the pool of potential HR candidates for CHRO leadership roles.

The evolution of the CHRO

The challenges companies will face in the future will require a very different set of skills from CHROs. With an increasing emphasis being placed on ESG, diversity and the changing role of technology in the workplace, the CHRO is increasingly becoming a disruptor within their organisations. This requires a galvanizing leadership style coupled with a diversity of experiences, in both HR and other parts of the business.

Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva, has experienced these new challenges first-hand, “At the beginning of the pandemic, my priority, alongside so many other HR leaders, was to get as many people as possible working from home in a bid to save lives.

"Before, CHROs certainly weren’t seen as a ‘linchpin’ of their business but that’s changed. We’ve been given a stronger voice, proven that we can stay relevant to the businesses we are in and, as a result, have helped our organisations survive.”

With this in mind it is important for leaders to look beyond their usual checklist of criteria and consider candidates with alternative experience and attributes that could enhance the role. Agility, forward thinking and wider commercial awareness are just some of the skills that are now even more critical to the CHRO role. 

Candidates with consultancy-style change or programme management experience and risk-taking leadership styles will find themselves more in demand. For instance, as workplaces continue to evolve, the need to manage remote workforces will increasingly bring technology expertise into the remit of a CHRO. From ensuring employees can access a robust remote working environment to understanding the ins and outs of the now necessary platforms and programmes.

There are indications that this mindset is already being adopted among FTSE 350 companies. We’ve identified a notable rise in the number of CHROs with business experience. For example, 54% of CHRO appointments made 2018 onwards had international (non-UK) experience, and this rose to 64% since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, CHROs with management consulting experience are also more in demand. They make up 41% of appointments since March 2020 – up from 29% of appointments since 2018.

Embracing diversity is key

The past year has also seen more businesses putting diversity at the front and centre of their strategy. A recent report from the World Economic Forum estimated that at the current rate of progress, it will take another 267.6 years to close the global economic gender gap.

This coupled with growing concerns amongst leaders, around the attraction and retention of employees with the right skills and experiences, has elevated the role of a CHRO. They are integral to being agents of change within, and cultural barometers for, their organisations.

When it comes to diversity among the C-suite, CHROs are themselves at the forefront of this evolution. Women continue to occupy the majority of CHRO roles, constituting 82% of those appointed since March 2020 at FTSE 350 companies.

Agility, forward thinking and wider commercial awareness are just some of the skills that are now even more critical to the CHRO role

However, there is a risk that organisations are coming to over-rely on a finite pool of experienced female candidates. While the CHRO role represents a rare source of gender diversity in the C-suite, we mustn’t let the CHRO become tokenistic. This is also complicated by the fact that CHROs are often in charge of mobilising DE&I efforts in their organisations.

Aviva’s Danny Harmer adds, “When it comes to diversity it’s taken us hundreds of years to form our current social structures. But unravelling the traditions and practices that block the progress of diversity and equity initiatives can’t take the same amount of time. There’s no getting away from the fact that removing gender bias and ensuring there is a diverse pool of people being nurtured and provided with opportunities to grow are two incredibly challenging issues. 

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to finding solutions. For HR leaders in particular, looking ahead, we need to balance society’s expectations for instant change with the reality of careful consistent investment in a more diverse pipeline of talent.”

Talent management experience is a rising prerequisite for today’s CHRO. The challenge to find, train and retain employees with the right skills and experiences has many business leaders concerned as they seek to future-proof their businesses post-pandemic. 

A talent for finding talent

Our Global Leadership Monitor found that 59% of leaders cited the availability of key talent and skills as one of their biggest concerns for the future. It is no surprise then, that in 2018 onwards, 45% of CHROs appointed in FTSE 350 companies had a talent management background.

Yet since the start of the pandemic, this expertise was found in the career histories of 55% of the appointments made. The search for talent has become an even higher priority on company agendas. Inevitably, managing it will be a must-have attribute for high-potential HR professionals.

Developments since March 2020 have brought about a moment of change and opportunity for CHROs. To build businesses that are ready for the challenges of tomorrow, boards and executives must embrace this change and make bolder decisions when it comes to recruitment.

ESG, diversity, inclusion, social justice, digitalisation and talent management are just some of the issues that have altered the role of a CHRO. It is only right that candidates for this vital role reflect the skills needed in this changing landscape.

Want to read more on HR thought leadership? Read our predictions for HR in a post-pandemic world.

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