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Five things every first-time CPO should know

Personio's chief people officer, Ross Seychell, shared five pieces of advice every first time CPO should know to excel in their position.

Speaking at the CIPD's 2023 Festival of Work conference, Seychell said the HR profession has grown over the past decade and career advice must evolve accordingly. 

He said: “Over the space of my career, I’ve seen HR evolve from being part of the back office, with a policy and admin function, to being much more dynamic and change-making. 

“HR are on the board more often these days. We are now decision-makers. 

His top five tips for first time CPOs are as follows:


1. Identify your most critical relationships 

Seychell said the first thing new CPOs should prioritise is identifying and nurturing relationships with key people in their company, from the CEO to other members of the people team. 

He said: “You will form a triangle of truth with the CEO and chief financial officer (CFO). Together, I’ve found that it’s possible to pool your expertise to see different angles of a situation and streamline ideas. 

“There is also an interesting relationship with the executive team that CPOs tend to build, as you will both have to coach them and remain one of their peers.

“Investors into the company are increasingly understanding the importance of the HR function and how employee engagement and other things within HR’s remit will affect the business, so there’s likely to be a relationship there to maintain too.” 

Seychell also recommended building an external network with other HR professionals. 

“I have relied on my external network to help me problem-solve many times,” he said. “I think it’s so important to curate a group of individuals that can support and guide you.” 


2. Designing your organisation for outcomes not structures 

In order to support the organisation’s agility, Seychell recommended avoiding creating a rigid structure and hierarchy of roles. 

He said: “At the start of my career I was thinking a lot about this traditional structure. I was trying to make sure I had all of these job titles in the organisation and that they were following very specific roles. 

“But this became a problem when we were trying to have more agility and adapt as the business environment changed.” 

Seychell said he now looks to recruit with a business driver in mind, so the team only expands in areas that truly support business goals. 

“Now I hire for the problem, rather than the position,” he said. 


3. Understand the dichotomy of the CPO 

The CPO role involves finding a balance between business interests and employee needs creating constant dilemmas, according to Seychell.  

He said: “It's hard to be everything, everywhere, all at once. There are lots of things expected of you as CPO and multiple dichotomies to navigate. 

“For example, you’re looking at being commercially minded versus empathetic, or company-led versus employee-focused. 

“You’ll also be balancing being data-driven versus emotionally-led, and focusing on internal issues or external drivers.” 

“The key to balancing this is to start by looking at the outcome you want to achieve in any given situation and making sure your emphasis is aligned with this on a case by case basis.” 


4. Speak up 

“You get told to be bold a lot as an HR,” Seychell said, “This can sound a bit trite but it’s true. Don’t be afraid to ask about what you need and want.” 

He said the best way to get leaders to listen to ideas is to articulate the problems they are solving. 

“If you say ‘if we don’t do this, this could happen’, that will make clear business sense to a leader and they are much more likely to take things on board. 

“Build a business case for them that is really clear about steps you want to take and the outcome.” 


5. Implement change carefully 

“I’m not a big fan of launching new things in this ‘big bang’ way,” Seychell said. 

Instead, he recommended HR start small, and monitor each step of implementation, giving the example of an overhaul to Personio’s reward package Seychell led when first joining the company. 

He said: “I went through a number of steps before starting to implement the changes. I used data to show how our reward package was out of step and did some benchmarking externally to the board and the leadership teams o they understood what we were looking at. 

“Then I developed a simple change plan. And rather than making changes all at once, which some of the board initially wanted to do, we did it gradually so we could see how each change worked. 

“That has turned out to be really helpful because some of the things we implemented threw up unexpected results or benefits, and we could clearly see what we needed to tweak.”