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Patrick Wright: What makes CHROs successful

CHRO success comes from two competencies: the ability to connect with people, and with the business

Over the past 10 years I have studied the chief HR officer role. Given this, I often get asked “What makes a CHRO successful?”

At a superficial level one could look at what CEOs want from CHROs. For example, every year our HR@Moore Survey of chief HR officers asks: “What is the CEO’s agenda for you and the HR function?” Every year the same answer tops the list: talent. So the easy answer is that the success of CHROs stems from their ability to deliver talent.

This year we attempted to get at the question a bit differently. First we asked: “From the CEO’s perspective in what two to three areas was the previous CHRO weak?” We assumed that when the CEO hired the successor, s/he hired to correct the previous deficiencies. Second, we asked them what they thought were the three most important determinants of CHRO success. In essence we asked why do CHROs fail, and why do they succeed? These results revealed a much more nuanced answer than simply “talent”.

Looking at what CEOs perceived as weakness in the previous CHRO, CHROs identified the ‘lack of talent/process/succession’ as the second most frequent reason for failure. This came behind ‘failure to build relationships/trust with the ELT’. The ‘lack of a strategic perspective’, ‘lack of business acumen’, and ‘inability to align HR and strategy’ rounded out the top five weaknesses of the previous CHRO.

Interestingly, talent practices barely made the top 10 things that drive CHRO success. They fell behind board/CEO/ELT trust (ranked #1), business acumen, aligning HR with strategy, relationship building/collaboration, strategic thinking, ability to influence, and bias for action/results/execution.

So what do these results suggest? First, CHROs and other HR leaders do need to deliver talent to the organisation through the development and implementation of practices that acquire, develop, motivate and retain that talent. Failing to do so leads to failure in the role. However, success in doing so does not ensure success in the role.

Rather, success comes from two general competencies: the ability to understand and connect with people, and with the business. The first focuses on building relationships through demonstrating a genuine interest in helping others to succeed. This requires that CHROs build deep relationships with others. Because CHROs often get stuck in the middle of interpersonal conflicts the ability to navigate and alleviate these issues requires an emotional intelligence that enables them to know what to share and what not to share.

The second competency focuses on developing an intellectual, emotional, and behavioural identification with the business so that commercial success takes priority.

However, those who succeed do not just have an intellectual understanding of the business, but rather a passion for it (and note that I said ‘business’ and not ‘financials’). True HR leaders recognise that business success entails more than financial success; it also includes adherence to the culture and values, engagement of the workforce, building customer loyalty, and making positive contributions to society.

This explains why integrity and courage have become critical competencies for senior HR leaders. In relationships to others and to the business, HR leaders must know, adhere to, and stand up for their values in ways that drive individual, team and organisational success. And that’s what drives CHRO success.

Patrick Wright is Thomas C Vandiver bicentennial chair in the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. He is ranked 10th on HR magazine's Most Influential Thinkers list