February 23, 2017 – The role of chief talent officer may not always get the wider recognition it deserves, but as a trusted advisor to executives at the top of the C-suite, it has become all but indispensable.
Those who hold the position tend to understand their organizations inside-out, from a strategic overview right down to the individuals who carry out the mission. And though their views might occasionally make some leaders uneasy, few would want to do without them.
“I see the chief talent officer as being the person providing some of the most intimate business counsel to the CEO,” says Joanne Rencher, chief business and talent officer for Girl Scouts of the USA. “We see the business through such a different lens, so we might see things hindering it or identify new business opportunities. So our role might be to uncover those things and then help the CEO leverage that knowledge. And of course we bring the added perspective of how talent and people fit into the conversation, and that advice is often pivotal.”
Coaching and Developing the C-Suite
Unlike many senior roles, the chief talent officer tends to have a broader perspective, with knowledge of virtually every domain within an organization. For some whom they affect, the chief talent officer might bring a frankness that can be less than welcomed.
“The CEO often needs to rely on chief talent officers to help coach and develop the rest of the C-suite – something all of us in this role need to be increasingly comfortable with,” Jo told me during a recent interview. “Sometimes that means calling out, giving direction, and speaking on behalf of the CEO to this important group of senior leaders. It can be a delicate balancing act, and one that not every C-level executive is always crazy about.”
At the very heart of Jo’s job is the need for a deep understanding of and attention to the culture of the Girl Scouts. Like Jo, those who hold such positions are oftentimes the spokesperson for the CEO, and culture must always be at the forefront of their thinking and efforts.
“I do this by what I call ‘serving the whole and not the parts,’ where you know that a discussion on culture might call for tough conversation,” says Jo. “It certainly calls for transparency. Professionals in my role need to be close to the pulse of the culture where we wade through it, guide people, and come up with solutions. This is in many ways the most important aspect of what we do as chief talent officers. It all comes down to how we all talk to each other, how we all relate to one another, how we trust each other, how we solve problems together – in service to the whole business.”
Not a Straight Line Career Path
Early in her career, Jo was a leader at a GE Capital business, then shifted to the non-profit sector. She served as vice president of human resources at the international AIDS Vaccine Initiative, where she launched a global HR unit and built a team across four continents and six countries. As chief people officer at the American Red Cross of Greater New York, she sat on the charity’s executive team and reported to the CEO. Following leadership stints in non-profit consulting to social entrepreneurs and in education reform, Jo moved to Girl Scouts of the USA, which is based in New York City.
“My pathway in some ways was unique, but in other ways it also followed along an expected and progressive career trajectory line,” says Jo. “For me, the achievement of reaching my role as this organization’s chief business and talent officer came about from a series of generalist responsibilities honed over nearly two decades across a variety of businesses. Each professional step that I took prepared me for the next one. It certainly wasn’t a straight line that I followed – like any career – but each position and new level of responsibility that I took led me forward. And all of this experience certainly prepared me for my role today.”
Indeed, no single human resources feeder role led Jo to her current role. Instead, she wound up over the years partaking in virtually every aspect of the talent function, whether it was working with data analytics and how that might help predict internal talent trends or developing succession plans. Role by role, she progressed toward the C-suite.
Along the way, however, she made sure she absorbed more than just those generalist areas related to talent. “To be a valued partner to the CEO, I knew instinctively that I needed to touch every single part of the business as I transitioned up,” Jo says. “So early on, I went way beyond HR. I learned how the organizations I worked for made money, what worried top management, and who were our competition. Touching all of those moving parts led me to be well poised and well positioned for my role today. My current role is embedded in the business, and I hold P & L responsibilities in addition to leading the talent function.”
An Atypical Route
On the surface, Jo followed the traditional progression of moving from a junior position to a mid-level post to an executive position, always with a focus on human resources. “But early on I thought the most effective way for me to reach the top of this function – and add value well outside of it – was to learn about all of the functions around it at the same time,” she remembers. “I knew that if I could take a multi-disciplinary approach and master multiple functions, then I could truly add value to the talent function and be effective. Being effective is what drives me every day. When I’m not effective, I’m not helping to push the organization ahead.”
Others, too, have followed atypical routes to the top of the talent function. Some have worked in various capacities in their careers and within their organizations, then brought that knowledge all together in their human resources role. That brings added-value to any organization, sometimes in ways that one can’t always anticipate.
“Here’s an example that happened to me,” says Jo. “Several months ago, we had a leadership need in our fundraising office as the executive had a personal emergency overseas. I could see that our executive team was increasingly concerned about the ramifications of this temporary disruption and how it might affect the business. We all felt vulnerable. But because I had worked so closely with that part of the business, I raised my hand and suggested that I could become the acting executive in this person’s absence. On the face of it, it seemed like an unusual offer. But, to me, it was a no-brainer. I had the fullest exposure across the enterprise, had been working closely with that executive and was completely comfortable. Adding value, stepping up, being effective. That’s how I approached this.”
A Fresh Viewpoint
Most would agree that the elevation of human resources to the C-suite has been a long time coming and has proven invaluable. But Jo isn’t convinced that the actual function of the CHRO position is all that different from that of the various human resource titles that groups have used in the past. She’s quick to qualify her thoughts as “less neat” as well as “very opinionated,” and “subjective.” In other words, she’s speaking for herself. And she concedes that everyone might not hold the same viewpoint.
“But I happen to think that the CHRO role itself is a bit of a vestige from the past,” she says. “Lots of HR leaders have been going on now for decades about the need to elevate the function, to be seen as an equal senior executive on par with a CFO, for example. So the current CHRO mantle has been borne out of that. Frankly, since that title emerged I have not seen how the role consistently differs at all from all other functional HR titles, such as director or vice president. So, looking back, I think the CHRO title was – and in many cases, still is – useful in terms of elevating the importance of the HR function in general, but it didn’t change the duties underneath it that brought these leaders into the business the way I described earlier. Again, that’s my opinion.”
Her role, on the other hand, signals real change in how an organization does business, Jo says. And it’s a perfect example of why titles matter. “The chief people officer has been part of an evolution or desire to innovate on what these roles are called and why people should stand up and pay attention and see them as doing something very different and exciting and fresh and valuable for the organization,” she says. “It signals something that’s completely over-the-top focused on its greatest assets, people, and so this title comes out of that innovative desire to really stand out and be called something different. I believe that after all is said and done, the chief talent officer will have longevity. It has already survived the test of time and it is the single HR position that knows the entire business.”
Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor — Hunt Scanlon Media