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Patrick Wright: What makes an effective CHRO?

For more than 10 years I have studied the chief HR officer role. Because of this, people often ask me what makes an effective CHRO.

While I have not specifically studied this issue, I have developed some of my own thoughts.

Recently Deb Cohen of the Society for Human Resource Management polled around 25 CHROs about what they thought. Her findings will be a chapter in our upcoming book View from the Top: Managing Human Capital for Competitive Advantage, but let me combine my impressions with how a number of them responded.

Business acumen. This topped the respondents’ list, and reflects my experience as well. While most HR professionals need business acumen, the need rises exponentially and must be deeper at CHRO level. As one CHRO noted: “CHROs must do more than understand the business. They have to understand it to the point where they can predict and affect the human capital issues that are driven from the business problems.” In other words: at lower levels a basic knowledge of finance and operations helps HR professionals to communicate with business leaders, but at the highest level the knowledge must be deep enough to understand the causes of organisational issues, and produce solutions that can positively impact operations.

Integrity. Not surprisingly a number of them mentioned integrity as a critical competence. One CHRO explained: “You must be trusted to maintain confidences and balance individuals and the organisation. Be the organisation’s conscience.” These CHROs focused on the fact that the CHRO must model integrity to build healthy businesses, cultures and relationships. 

Influence. I often teach that HR leaders must influence organisations, decisions, and people, and this was clear in the CHRO comments. As one CHRO explained: “CHROs must influence the CEO, the executive team, or the board. This is an everyday skill. We have to know how to make things happen in a function that has little organisational power.”

Accountability. This applies in two areas. First, CHROs willingly accept accountability to deliver hard, measurable results. Second, they do this by holding others accountable. Most CHROs spend so much time working with the CEO and executive team that they do not have time for the nitty-gritty of HR processes. However, they appoint great people, define the measurable results, and then hold those people accountable for delivering them.

Courage. Almost as many CHROs mentioned courage as mentioned business acumen. One CHRO wrote: “CHROs have to be willing to go out on a limb. They must have guts and be unafraid.” Another said “Business pressures are more pronounced than ever – and they create a cauldron in which compromises, ethical breaches, and sins of omission boil. I truly believe that acts of corporate courage – speaking up, pushing back, speaking truth to power, and standing up for those with less power – are all very important ingredients to becoming a senior leader in HR.”

This is not an exhaustive list. I am not suggesting that CHROs don’t need technical competence in HR. However, based on the CHROs I have known, I think that one who can demonstrate business acumen, integrity, influence, accountability and courage will provide immense value to their organisation, their leadership team, and their function.

Patrick Wright is Thomas C Vandiver Bicentennial chair in the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. He is ranked number eight on HR magazine’s Most Influential International Thinkers list