chief people officer article

Is Your Chief People Officer Keeping Up? The Ever-Changing People Function

Today’s pace of change is forcing companies to adjust in big ways, including in the People function and the role of the Chief People Officer. Read on for how Human Resources has and continues to evolve, what your competition is doing in each aspect of the function, and if your CPO is keeping up with the times.

To understand the complexities and possibilities of the People function today, one must consider the context: workforce changes in makeup and mobility, technological advances with artificial intelligence and automation, a volatile and ever-changing competitive landscape, heightened consumer expectations, and a market more sensitive to a company’s impact on society at large. Businesses today largely accept that they are living in the widely referenced VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, complete with a crushing pace of change.

So what does this have to do with a company’s workforce? Quite simply, everything. Human capital is increasingly viewed as the competitive advantage of most organizations, even with all of the technological advances. As noted by a recent Boston Consulting Group publication, “tech is meaningless without the talent to put it to use…in an age of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, human talent is more important than ever.” With the pressure and speed of transformation, companies can no longer depend on an isolated C-Suite and hierarchies, and need to unlock the potential of the entirety of their workforces to drive innovation, flexibility, and speed on the front lines.

The Evolution of the People Function

The elevation of the human’s unique contribution in the business world is reflected in the evolution of the People function, including that of its leaders. From the Ford Era-demand for consistency and uniformity from humans and the promotion of one universal method of HR, came companies like Netflix and Google, with Laszlo Bock arguing that “all it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good…and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines…machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and teams successful.”[1] Human Resources became an increasingly valued component of the C-Suite, with concepts such as the G3 triumvirate of the CEO, CFO and CPO to run organizations, and today, as Adobe’s CPO Donna Morris puts it in CNBC’s 2019 Work Forum, talking about the Chief People Officer simply “getting a seat at the table” can be viewed as insulting given its importance. With the increasingly recognized weight and complexity of the space, we’re seeing more and more people flock to the function, most notably from elite strategy consulting firms.

The Ask

The People function, and those who lead it, are charged with aligning the entirety of the employees’ efforts with the overall business strategy: how to properly grow, incentivize and celebrate the workforce to get the best from it towards and beyond a company’s goals. Given corporate strategies and goals differ, it is up to the Chief People Officer to understand what levers to pull to best execute on that mandate. This includes keeping current on each element of the function, knowing what’s new and different in each category, and constantly asking whether the current state of an organization’s People practices is best serving its broader business aspirations.

Some examples of trends CPOs are implementing in their organizations:

  • Compensation: Experimentation with frequency of salary adjustments, employee choice of compensation mix, and transparency of standing relative to competitor compensation.
  • Performance Reviews: Movement away from annual reviews toward more frequent or project-based schedules to keep up with the speed of change (i.e. monthly check-ins, quarterly reviews, etc.).
  • Other Rewards / Flexible Work Arrangements: Use of rewards over traditional compensation to drive buy-in, personalize employee experience, and define employer brand, including increase of flexible work arrangements to enhance employee experience.
  • Learning & Development: Democratization of L&D expertise due to online programs and badging, allowing leaders to mix and match programs while demanding more proof of ROI.
  • Talent Acquisition: Utilization of AI and technology to better the quality, speed and reach of interactions and create more transparency in the recruitment process while, importantly, controlling for the negatives of automation.
  • People Analytics: Diversification and redefinition of KPIs beyond the mainstream (with relational analytics, etc.) to better get at how the people function is really meeting the strategic needs of an organization.
  • Organizational Design: Experimentation with agile (whether company-wide, cascading or isolated in one business unit) to drive innovation and speed.
  • Startup Market: Constant upkeep of new technologies and players, which is becoming increasingly difficult given the swelling number of organizations entering the space.

With a world in a constant and increasing state of flux, the demand on and expectations of the Chief People Officer have never been greater, and the ability to constantly learn and push beyond boundaries is of the utmost importance. Every People function will and should look/operate differently to help accomplish a company’s overall objectives, pulling together an ecosystem that breathes life into an organization and has it operating at its absolute best. For companies that want to make a major impact, they need to ask themselves not only if their Chief People Officer is up to that challenge, but if the companies themselves are providing the right environment and support to allow those changes to occur.

At Raines International, we are privileged to work with leaders from both a company and candidate perspective who are committed to driving marked progress and innovation in the people space. It’s an incredibly exciting area to watch, be a part of, and contribute to, and we cannot wait to see where it will go next.


[1] Laszlo Bock, Work Rules (New York: Twelve, 2015), 13, 15.