The Rise of the Private Equity Chief Talent Officer 

A new report from Leathwaite illuminates the rise of the role of chief talent officer, who helps to make sure that PE firms have the right human capital in place and can marshal the firm’s capital adequately. Often an operating partner within the firm structure, the chief talent officer takes ownership of the talent agenda within the portfolio companies, ensuring the leadership is fit for purpose and can deliver on an agreed-upon strategy. Let’s take a closer look at the role and its growing influence in the private equity ecosystem.

October 20, 2021 – While drawing down on committed funds and having capital “at work” is most people’s core understanding of what the modern private equity firm does, having the right human capital in place to maximize return-on-assets and marshal the firm’s capital adequately is of equal critical importance. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps a logical development to see the evolution and rise to prominence of the chief talent officer role in the modern PE firm, according to a recent report from Leathwaite.

Often an operating partner within the firm structure, denoting the seniority of the role, the chief talent officer takes ownership of the talent agenda within the portfolio companies – ensuring the leadership is fit for purpose and possesses the capabilities necessary to deliver on the agreed strategy, according to the Leathwaite report. “Where capability gaps exist, working with the management to set the right learning agenda to bridge the gaps, or going externally to buy in those capabilities, are two natural courses of action,” said Anne Loftus, a consultant for the global HR practice at Leathwaite and the report’s author. “The PE CTO role continues to evolve in scope and grow in prominence.”

Leathwaite noted that what was a “nice-to-have” 10 years ago has become a critical role or “table stakes” where competitive advantage among PE firms is concerned. In their 2010 book, “Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers,” Bill Conaty and Ram Charan refer to talent management as the core competitiveness of an enterprise. This is at the heart of the chief talent officer  role.

The Profile

The ranks of modern talent chiefs are highly accomplished, according to the Leathwaite report. Jim Williams at TPG (former managing partner at Hay Group) and Dennis Donovan at Cerberus (former CHRO at Home Depot) were among the first to form portfolio company operations groups, which are dedicated cross-functional units established purely to support and improve the inner workings of portfolio companies. KKR went to search in 2008 and hired Peter Fasolo as one of the first chief talent officers. Bill Conaty (as above) joined CDR just after retiring as CHRO of GE in 2007. Sandy Ogg joined Blackstone in the role in 2011, having previously been the Global CHRO of Unilever.

Anne Loftus is a consultant in Leathwaite’s New York office where she focuses on human resources functionally across industries. She has executed hundreds of HR searches including CHROs, chief talent officers, heads of talent acquisition and development and rewards leaders. Ms. Loftus has worked in a variety of industries including professional and financial services, real estate, private equity, hospitality, retail, consumer, health, and technology. 

“As evidenced by the above examples, many talent chiefs are seasoned and senior individuals who can meet any C-suite member at eye level and have a true lens on best practice,” said Ms. Loftus. “Over the past few years, the successful CTO profile has broadened to include executive search or talent acquisition leaders, management consultants, Ph.D. IO Psych / assessment professionals from firms like ghSMART or Green Peak, and individuals with deep talent management backgrounds. In addition to those, former CHROs with specific industry experience have recently moved from one PE firm to another, given the limited pool of talent and demand,” she noted.

The Role

There is no one set formula or job description for the role – the position varies widely, so it is important for the firm to identify priorities and expectations (as well as pain points) and align with the investment strategy to determine the CTO profile best suited to the firm, according to the Leathwaite report. Overall, the search firm says that the CTO is responsible for driving organizational effectiveness and performance.

Leathwaite pointed out several main components to the chief talent officer role:

Talent acquisition: Some PE firms seek out executives who can dedicate themselves to recruiting often when further growth is contingent on bringing in new talent. “This requires understanding both business needs and culture. Integrating diversity into recruitment strategy is a priority,” the firm said. “A major PE player has recently mandated reaching one-third diversity in its portfolio company leadership ranks. On-boarding and assimilation are also important especially while much recruiting is done virtually during COVID-19. Having a consistent framework to help new leaders enter the company and approach their new role successfully is key,” said Ms. Loftus.

Talent management and assessment: Leathwaite also said that building internal leadership capabilities, strengthening the bench, building an internal pipeline of talent are critical. Executive coaching can be a big part of the role.

Broad HR and operating support: Building and leading effective sustainable processes and programs including incentive structures, etc. are essential. Other components include introducing human capital best practices and leverage tools within and between portfolio companies. Employee experience, culture, engagement and return to work are of heightened importance in the face of COVID-19.

Governance: The CTO navigates changing landscapes related to regulatory, employment and global / national issues – e.g. social issues such as BLM. Leathwaite notes that PE firms, given the breadth and depth of their investing (and as an extension their CTOs) also have the opportunity to influence boards and leadership for the good on environmental and social issues and making their businesses attractive places to work from a purpose and values perspective.

Related: Four HR Roles That Matter Most

Due diligence and Integration: The chief talent officer ensures that technical aspects of diligence are resourced properly and oversees leadership / culture assessments to inform talent decisions and integration approach.

Keys to Success

The most successful CTOs are those who build successful relationships – and credibility – with the portfolio company CEOs and leadership teams and with the operating partners at their firm, according to Ms. Loftus. “Secondly, it is important to learn the language of PE and how the firm operates,” she added. “An open line of communication with the deal teams is also important. All this requires gravitas and leadership experience.”

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Netflix has named PepsiCo’s Sergio Ezama as its next chief talent officer. Egon Zehnder assisted in the search assignment. Mr. Ezama replaces Jessica Neal, who left the streaming company in April after four years heading human resources. 

“Sergio has a truly global perspective that will be critical as we continue to build teams around the world, enabling us to better serve the needs of members everywhere,” said Greg Peters, Netflix’s chief operating officer and chief product officer, who oversaw hiring for the position.

“Many CTOs also stress the importance of not taking a formulaic approach,” said Ms. Loftus. “Whilst the talent management community at large is packed with highly qualified, Ph.D.-level organizational and learning psychologists, a pragmatic fit-for-purpose approach that is contextual to the portfolio company in question is the difference between good and great.”

Key Challenges

Prioritization: Most talent chiefs have small teams and can become victims of their own success when deal teams and portfolio companies get wind that the function is an effective one, according to the Leathwaite report.

Time: “Overseeing search and recruiting takes on a disproportionate amount of time; and recognizing that building value-added talent programs takes time,” according to the Leathwaite report. “Additionally, given the nature of exits and new acquisitions, the portfolio keeps evolving.”

Diversity: While many industries are making strides in their D&I hiring efforts, PE is lagging. Today, just 18 percent of PE professionals are female, with just 10 percent in senior roles. For professionals of color and those who identified as LGBTQ, the numbers are even more discouraging.

“While the pace of PE investment activity and exits slowed in Q2 and Q3 of 2020 as deal makers felt the impact of COVID -19, the private equity asset class continues to grow, and capital flows show little sign of abating,” the Leathwaite report said. “It is estimated that at the beginning of 2020, PE had $1.5 trillion in capital waiting to be invested. With this in mind, the chief talent officer seems set to continue to grow in prominence. While attractive and theoretically lucrative, it should be pointed out that it is not an easy role to perform and the agility to talk the language of different cultures, companies and industries concurrently while making people decisions with value-creation at the core, is not a skill that everyone possesses.”

One new title that is being used is chief performance officer. One former CTO, referred to the role as “organizational engineering.” In another development, last November, Blackstone hired the former co-CEO of SAP in a newly established role to lead technology and digital transformation across its portfolio companies. “This requires strong attention to both business levers and understanding how the strengths/opportunities of your leadership will be able to adapt to the evolving landscape,” said Ms. Loftus. “A CTO role can have one eye on building capability for the leaders / teams and one eye towards creating more organizational capacity – this shapes how companies can focus on strategy, short and long-term priorities, and delivering on financial results for stakeholders.”

Related: Chief Talent Officer Delivers Pivotal Advice to the C-Suite

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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