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It is generally recognised that the greatest asset of any business is its people.

More than ever, organisations are experiencing a changing environment and so understanding what enables people to perform at their best has never been more important.

Harnessing the talent of the workforce to deliver your organisational goals is what Human Resources is all about.

Creating a culture where people understand their roles and enjoy a world-class employee experience is essential when seeking to build a thriving business.

Organisations are turning to a new, fast-growing field within the HR industry and appointing chief people officers to create a workforce that is positive, connected and engaged.

The CPO role was created essentially to maximise the effectiveness of human capital in what are usually large organisations which operate globally across different continents and cultures.

Often an executive level position, the CPO is regarded by many as the pinnacle of an HR career requiring years of skill, experience and knowledge.

As more businesses seek to invest heavily in their HR structure, CPO positions are growing and becoming more prominent within both large multinationals and smaller organisations.

In February, the BBC appointed Uzair Qadeer as its new chief people officer to oversee the global HR function across the BBC group.

Among a range of responsibilities, Qadeer will drive the company’s employee experience, cultural transformation, organisation change and people strategy.

Earlier the same month, Apple announced it had appointed Carol Surface to become the company’s first chief people officer.

The move marks an overhaul in the way the company hires and supports employees by shifting human resources duties from where they used to sit within retail.

The UK government, too, appreciates the impact CPOs can have on building an effective people strategy and, for some years, has appointed experienced HR professionals to lead key people reforms across the civil service.

As the future of work continually evolves, one thing is clear – CPOs will be central to creating a strategy and vision that help organisations to achieve long-term success.

In this complex and constantly changing landscape, what skills and experience will be required and who will be best suited to the role of chief people officer?

What does a CPO do?

CPOs will have responsibility for all people-based activities within the organisation.

Duties vary according to the size of the business but generally the role includes being responsible for all HR decision making and employee related issues at both strategic and operational levels.

This is often globally as well as nationally.

In addition, understanding the overall objectives of the organisation and how they relate to business and individual performance management is crucial for any CPO.

While they must be able to show the value of people to the organisation, equally anyone in the role will need to hold their own when the talk turns to company finance.

Ultimately, you will be expected to develop and implement creative people solutions that drive the performance of your business.

A CPO will know how to deliver excellent customer service through the workforce, facilitate best practice and inspire confidence at board level.

You can expect to see the following responsibilities in a CPO job description:

  • Develop an overarching people strategy for the business.

  • Deliver a talent management strategy which includes determining talent needs, acquisition, retention and development.

  • Sponsor the diversity and inclusion agenda throughout the organisation.

  • Build high levels of employee engagement.

  • Create an inspiring and empowered workplace culture.

  • Champion organisational development and change to support the culture of the business.

  • Manage all learning and development to ensure employees do their best work.

In a nutshell, the CPO is responsible for establishing a culture in which employees feel supported, rewarded and valued.

What experience and skills does a CPO need?

CPOs typically need extensive leadership experience in HR and wide-ranging knowledge of the business along with its sector.

High level expertise in the core HR areas of talent management, employee engagement, diversity and inclusion and leadership development will be expected along with knowledge of key business functions such as finance, marketing and IT.

As well as being an excellent communicator with first class organisational skills, a CPO should be a good leader who understands people’s strengths and weaknesses, an effective decision maker and a confident problem-solver.

CPO attributes:

  • Strategic and visionary.

  • Dynamic and proactive.

  • A people person who is as effective in the boardroom as on the shop floor.

  • Commercially minded and business focused.

  • Ethical and trustworthy.

  • Resilient – a good CPO will never shy away from difficult conversations.

  • Courageous and able to challenge judgement.

  • Logical and analytical.

How do I become a CPO?

While most people in the position of a CPO will have a strong background in HR, it might also be an advantage to have gained expertise in other areas of the business.

Ian Nicholas, Global Managing Director and former chief HR Officer at Reed, who was recognised by HR Magazine as a key HR influencer for his work on human capital management, says experience of an operational role can pay dividends if you want to reach the top of the people profession.

“This may be a permanent move, even if you have plans to move back into HR later in your career, or it could be a secondment. Either way, it will give you a better understanding of the business and provide credibility with your colleagues. You can speak from a position of strength when you have actually done the job,” he advises.

His views were echoed by Sarah Appleton, a former HR and Transformation Director with responsibility for people and property at Majestic Wine.

“It’s not always necessary to have a traditional background in Human Resources to achieve professional success. My background in strategy and operations at board level is an advantage in an HR role because having an understanding of the operational and commercial complexities of the business really helps.

If you have a very firm view of HR best practice that doesn’t fit with the way the business works then you will be a lone voice. Unless you have that empathy and understanding of the barriers being faced, you will never build consensus around the boardroom on HR issues.”

Like most leadership positions, CPOs will generally have a degree which may relate to the role.

Many will have studied for a CIPD Advanced qualification in either Strategic people management or Strategic learning and development and will have gained Chartered CIPD membership, the industry’s mark of quality for people professionals.

Education and experience

CPOs will often be able to show a mix of the following education and experience in their CV:

  • A degree or a business-related qualification.

  • A CIPD Advanced qualification and Chartered CIPD membership.

  • Extensive experience of people roles.

  • Experience as a leader.

  • A commitment to diversity and inclusion programmes.

  • An ability in people analytics.

  • High emotional intelligence.

  • Ability to communicate and present ideas concisely and persuasively.

What salary can I expect as a CPO?

A CPO’s salary varies based on location, experience and the industry but most earn six figures. An average salary in the UK is £105,195.

Next steps

Historically, the term HR has had a specific narrative around it and has come under some criticism.

But humans aren’t resources like computers or office equipment. Now, more than ever we know the key role HR can play as a strategic partner to businesses if given the time and tools to do so.

In this new era for work, CPOs can play a vital role in getting their people strategy right.

Providing your workforce with a great people experience leads to a competitive advantage which all businesses want.

The responsibility of the CPO is to build engaged teams who feel valued and heard.