Maximizing the CEO/CHRO Partnership

November 3, 2020

Maximizing the CEO/CHRO Partnership

Doug Conant is the only former Fortune 500 CEO who is a New York Times bestselling author and has been recognized as a top 50 leadership innovator, a top 100 leadership speaker, and a top 100 most influential author in the world. He has served as President of the Nabisco Foods Company, CEO of Campbell Soup Company and Chairman of Avon Products. After retiring from the corporate world, he founded ConantLeadership—a mission-driven community of leaders.

Conant is best known for his work as CEO turning around an ailing Campbell Soup Co. In 2001, business results were dismal and employee engagement was at rock bottom. With a relentless focus on workplace culture, Conant turned things around dramatically. Campbell Soup’s employee engagement scores 10 years later were at the top of the companies Gallup surveyed, including a spectacular 17 to 1 engaged to disengaged employee ratio. (In 2001, the ratio was a nightmarish 1.67 to 1.) Over this time, total shareholder return went from a negative to exceeding by multiples industry and stock market benchmarks.

HR Is Keeper of the Culture Flame

According to Conant, employee engagement starts at the top. “Your CEO needs to be your chief people officer. He or she must embody the core values and practice the core behaviors necessary to create a great culture.

“As CEO, you simply can't delegate workplace culture.”

Conant sees this CEO responsibility as giving rise to a partnership with HR. “Both the CEO and HR are essential for building a high trust, high performance culture. The CEO can talk the talk and walk the talk but he or she also has several other mission critical responsibilities. HR is the 24/7 keeper of the culture flame. The CEO needs HR to be the eyes and ears he or she can’t always be and to make the interventions necessary to keep the desired culture on track.”

Conant shares a lesson taught him by the late Stephen R. Covey. “Dr. Covey taught me a version of Maslow’s Hierarchy. It’s a pyramid. At the base is life’s basic needs and essentials. The next level up is engagement. The third level is growth and development, the sense that you're improving. At the pyramid’s top is feeling that you matter, that what you do makes a difference.

“When the CEO and HR achieve symmetry, employees experience the Covey pyramid.”

Invest in Your Human Capital

Many companies have responded to COVID-19 by cutting costs in the human resource area, including training and development. Conant thinks this is a huge mistake. “Now is the time to do the opposite. If you don't take care of your people, in times of crisis, they won't take care of your agenda.

“Job one should be investing in your managers and supporting their development. Otherwise your agenda is at risk.”

Conant points out that employees join a company but leave a manager. This includes employees who quit the job and employees who quit on the job.

“For most companies, the amount of money we're talking about is insignificant,” Conant asserts. “It's not going to be a difference maker. However, the failure to invest in people can be a critical difference maker in the company’s survival.

“Once you take human capital resources away from human capital management, you can't get them back.”

Maximizing Your Training and Development Dollar

When Conant speaks of training and development, he’s not propounding a “throw a class at them” method. “Training and development should be carefully planned and designed. It should be aligned with critical company values, mission and the core competencies that will enable the company to succeed. It should be just as strategic as any other company initiative.”

What’s a Star HR Leader?

I presented Conant with the following hypothetical: You’ve been called out of retirement to serve as CEO of a major company struggling with COVID-19 challenges. One of your first orders of business is to hire a CHRO. Using the star profile approach described here and here, what would you list as the core behavioral characteristics of a star CHRO?

  • Competence: The CHRO needs to have evidenced that they have the skills, assets and capabilities to lead an HR function, partner with a CEO and influentially work with an executive team.
  • Character: The CHRO needs to have demonstrated that they will do what they say they will do with consummate integrity.
  • Teamwork: The CHRO needs to have demonstrated the capacity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues at all levels to accomplish the enterprise goals.
  • High Performance Orientation: The CHRO needs to have demonstrated the capacity to create and deliver an aspirational culture agenda for the enterprise, engaging all of the relevant stakeholders—employees, management and the board.
  • Leadership Agility: Particularly in these days, the CHRO needs to have demonstrated the capacity to shift gears and address the issues of the day in a principle-centered fashion that honors the higher purpose of the enterprise and also directly addresses the issues at hand.

On the last point Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of SHRM, is unequivocal. “HR leaders have been the workplace ‘first responders’ throughout the tumultuous events of 2020. Our ability to be flexible and agile has proven an essential competency, and it’s why more than 85 percent of HR professionals report that their work has become ‘especially crucial’ to their organization since the pandemic began.

“As we usher our workplaces into the ‘next normal,’ our value to mission and business will only expand.”

Putting Humanity Into HR

What Conant describes and what former Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally asserts in this column is simple and straightforward. When HR partners with the CEO to create a great workplace culture, everyone wins.

The Authors: 

Jathan Janove, J.D., is a former employment attorney and author of Managing to Stay Out of Court: How to Avoid the 8 Deadly Sins of Mismanagement, The Star Profile: A Management Tool to Unleash Employee Potential and Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches.