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Exclusive interview: Why CPOs make great CEOs

After spending three months as interim CEO, Katherine Easter is returning to her CPO role -

Katherine Easter explains why C-suite relationships are the key to success, and shares the transferrable skills that smoothed her transition from chief people officer (CPO) to interim CEO of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF).

Katherine Easter joined the PPF as head of HR 13 years ago. Since then she has overseen the growth of the organisation from 100 to 450 people, insourced a number of departments and been promoted to chief people officer. 

In January, she was given a new challenge: the role of CEO. It was one that she took on with confidence. 

“In some respects, taking the interim CEO post was relatively straightforward because I’ve worked so closely with previous CEOs,” she says. “I had overseen a previous CEO changeover and so I knew what was required in an incoming CEO, so taking the position was a great way to keep the company on an even keel.” 

Easter says her CPO role had prepared her well to run the company. 

“The thing about an HR role is you have insight to each area of the business, and you know what people’s concerns are. This set me up really well to hold us over at a time of change.”

Read more: Five things every first-time CPO should know

Her knowledge of recruitment and organisational development was also useful, she adds. 

“I did go through times where I was talking about my budget as the HR person and then the organisation’s budget as CEO. One of our biggest costs is people, whether that be recruitment or restructuring some teams, but as a CPO working as CEO I understood the reasons for those costs, even though they can look like a big number. That definitely accelerated the process [to agreeing budgets]. 

“Although, I have been lucky to work with CEOs who are supportive of HR, so I didn't see it as an opportunity to authorise lots of people initiatives just because I had the keys the castle!” 

Easter says that what made her a good CPO also makes her a good CEO: her intimate knowledge of how the business works. 

“As a CPO it can be tempting to follow what is the newest best practice in the HR space,” she says, “but you have to understand how people in your organisation specifically contribute to the commercial outcomes." 

Easter explains that she has previously worked in businesses where headcount requirements could fluctuate significantly, "so if you didn't have enough work then people had to go, and if you had too much work you needed to hire people. There was a very clear line between the people you had and what money you made. 

“At the PPF it is less linear as we bring in money from levy payers, which is then invested and increases in value. However, of course, if you don't have the right skills and experience it will make the difference to how much money you make. Being able to articulate how exactly the human resource contributes to the financial running of the company is crucial.”

Read more: HR professionals don't get enough training and support, survey finds

She adds that HR leaders can make a smoother transition to CEO posts by managing relationships with the board. 

“There are simple things like listening and understanding what people are really saying that you build as CPO and become invaluable as CEO.  

“As a CPO, when you’re sitting in a board meeting, you won’t be commenting on every point, so you have time to sit back and see how people communicate, the things that give them confidence and the things that make them worry. All of those things have helped me be a CEO that gives the board confidence.” 

Although the board invited Easter to interview for the role on a permanent basis, she decided to continue working in HR. Michelle Ostermann, an experienced senior leader and chair of the global pension industry association, is due to join the PPF as CEO this month (April 2024). 

Easter, who has worked closely with previous CEOs, said the key to building a good relationship with them has been listening skills. 

“Listen 10 times longer than you want to. Even if you think you know the solution to the problem, it gives the other person something they don't often get, which is the time and space to work their ideas out.  

“When you do voice your solution, you can reflect back some of the things that you know are really important to the CEO. Building those important relationships with leaders has been crucial to my career.”