Chief medical officer. Chief diversity officer. Chief purpose officer. Chief communication officer.
HR has worn these and many other hats throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, often serving as the most front-line executive managing the impact of the unprecedented global crisis on the workforce, says Dean Carter, chief people officer at Guild Education. In most leadership meetings in the last three years, he notes, the chief people officer was often the first to speak—on issues from business design to workforce management to compensation to diversity, equity and inclusion, reflecting CHROs’ growing ownership.
And that work has permanently transformed what it means to be a CHRO.
“We no longer just have a seat at the table,” Carter says. “We have a real piece of the table now. There’s true real estate here.”
But, says the former CHRO of outdoor retailer Patagonia, HR needs to use that platform well to maximize its potential.
“It’s like what Michelle Obama said: If you have a seat at the table and you don’t use it, get out because someone else could use it who will get in there and do the work. So, we have a responsibility to this moment,” Carter says.
Part of that responsibility involves becoming a “voice of the company,” Carter says. As the breadth of areas touched by HR expands, so too does its internal and external influence. Instead of HR leaders speaking at HR conferences to other HR professionals, for instance, Carter says, modern CHROs need to create connections with and conversations among business leaders across functions.
Similarly, HR’s elevated role means leaders need to align themselves more closely with business strategy—and that means ensuring strategy treats people as the company’s most important asset.
“We have to think about our employees like a long-term investment, not just something we’re going to churn and burn through,” he says.
At Patagonia, for instance, which has operated on-site childcare for decades, Carter says, there were employees who themselves were products of that childcare center—and who now are sending their own kids there.
“When you think differently about employees—as an investment—you can see that providing high-quality childcare for employees isn’t just a contribution to those employees; it’s their kids and their kids,” he says.
That also speaks to the evolving expectations for CHROs to function as a “community manager”—both internally and externally, Carter says.
One way to meet that need is by joining boards—which historically have lacked professionals with deep people experience but, given most organizations’ elevated focus on people issues post-COVID, could benefit from the involvement of HR professionals. Carter himself, for instance, has served on the boards of Cornerstone OnDemand and Griffith Foods.
“For boards, the No. 1 issue they’re interested in is people. But so often, issues like CEO compensation are being looked at by people who’ve never done comp,” says Carter. “If people are your most important asset and boards want to drive that, you need someone on the comp committee who understand comp. That’s next-gen for HR.”