Talent, Leadership and Learning

What CEOs Want From HR

  • February 25, 2022
Nick Holley
Nick Holley, Director CRF Learning

I often hear HR professionals complain that their CEO and their organisation aren’t good customers of HR, that they don’t get HR or that they don’t give them a seat at the table. In a series of 45 interviews with CEOs and a survey of 125 business and HR leaders it was clear that the vast majority of the respondents want to be good customers of HR, that they do get HR and they do want HR to take on a more strategic role. Equally the majority was frustrated in how far HR lived up to this. Perhaps when people start complaining they need to look at themselves in the mirror first:

  • We need to listen to our CEO about what he or she wants and then challenge them on what they actually need.
  • We need to get the basics right before we try to be strategic.
  • We need to engage with the business agenda to ensure what we see as strategic is truly strategically relevant.
  • We need to focus on upskilling our strategic and commercial skills.
  • We need to focus on delivering this more pragmatically, concentrating on ‘fit for purpose’ rather than ‘world class’. We need to make simplicity a watchword for HR or we will alienate not only our CEOs but also the whole business.
  • We need to take accountability for its delivery even if we don’t have to deliver it.
  • We need to have the self-confidence to challenge effectively for what is right.
  • Finally, we need to do all this with unquestionable integrity.

Personally, I found this final conclusion reassuring. In a world of massive change and declining trust in business it’s good to hear that CEOs value integrity more than anything else.

If we ask the ‘so what?’ question there are clear implications for enhancing HR talent and capability, who we recruit into the function (and who we don’t) and how we develop them to be the HR directors of the future. The research points to three key areas:

1. Integrity.
Integrity is the key, but can you teach it? It is critical that we look for it when we recruit and then constantly reinforce it in every conversation we have with every HR professional in our teams. It needs to be a key criterion for promotions. It is also critical that we don’t let people in who have no integrity or let them survive. It is a virus, which CEOs clearly will not tolerate, so we need to stamp it out.

2. Delivery.
Delivery is something we can assess and teach. It’s about focus, discipline and follow-through. It’s about balancing our teams with thinkers but also with doers and recognising and valuing the doers as much as the thinkers. It’s about developing project management and prioritisation skills and techniques. Above all it’s about delivering things that are relevant to the business and which are simple, and pragmatic not over engineered.

3. Credibility.
Credibility isn’t something you can develop it’s about understanding what makes us credible in our CEO’s eyes and developing these elements. Having said that there are clearly some common elements: 

  • HR skills.
  • Key personal qualities: courage, curiosity, collaboration, confidence and communication.
  • Intellect – both IQ and EQ.
  • Commerciality: applying all these elements in the context of the business’s needs, to make a difference to performance and sustainability. 

These are all things we can highlight in assessment and development by raising awareness of the importance of the elements, which are most relevant in our organisational contexts.

CEOs want HR to play a key business role. It’s up to us to recruit and train our people and ourselves so we can play it.


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