Business Administration

How (and Why) to Become a Chief People Officer

How (and Why) to Become a Chief People Officer
The average salary for CPOs is $150,389 per year. Like all c-level executives, CPOs are eligible for additional compensation, including annual bonuses (averaging over $26,000) and profit-sharing (averaging $15,000). Image from Unsplash
Mary Kearl profile
Mary Kearl December 11, 2019

More companies than ever are elevating their human resources director to c-level. Sometimes called a chief people officer, other times a chief human resources officer or chief talent officer, this top-tier exec oversees hiring, payroll, benefits, and conflict resolution. It's a big job with a big paycheck to match.

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A company can have the greatest ideas, the greatest products, and the greatest tech, and still, fail… if it doesn’t have the right people to execute its vision. When a company grows beyond the “let’s just hire our friends” phase, it needs a human resources (HR) department to find those employees. And when a company grows to the point where HR requires a fully staffed team, it sometimes creates a C-level executive role called the chief people officer (CPO)—also referred to as the chief human resources officer (CHRO) or the chief talent officer (CTO)—to lead HR.

The CPO’s team does a lot more than identify and vet new hires. The responsibilities of a chief people officer include:

  • Manages employee benefits and payroll
  • Mediates employee grievances
  • Investigates supervisor-employee disputes
  • Oversees employee evaluations
  • Monitors morale and employee turnover

It also can handle internal messaging, i.e., informing employees of changes in policies and benefits, and employee training and education.

The CPO is HR’s leader and chief strategist, contributing input on corporate decisions about growth and organizational design. Kathleen Hogan, who has served as the chief people officer at Microsoft, described her day-to-day in an interview with USA Today: “My job is really to listen and learn from employees, and make decisions that help us create an empowering culture where everyone can do their best work.”

Not every company sees the need for a CPO. Currently only about 7 percent of midsize organizations have an HR executive in the c-suite. Many are forward-thinking, fast-growing startups competing for talent in a lean labor market, but some are longer-established enterprises. Toronto’s city government has a chief people officer, for example.

If you have a passion for HR and leadership, becoming a CPO is an excellent career target for you. In this guide to becoming a chief people officer, we’ll cover:

  • The pros and cons of becoming a chief people officer
  • Kinds of chief people officer careers
  • Educational commitment to become a chief people officer
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a chief people officer
  • Further accreditation or education for chief people officers
  • Typical advancement path for chief people officers
  • Should you become a chief people officer?
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The pros and cons of becoming a chief people officer

Pros of becoming a chief people officer

  • Generous compensation: Payscale reports that the average salary for CPOs is $150,389 per year. Like all c-level executives, CPOs are eligible for additional compensation, including annual bonuses (averaging over $26,000) and profit-sharing (averaging $15,000).
  • Health benefits: Most CPOs receive medical insurance (92 percent), dental (85 percent), and vision (74 percent). Only 6 percent report receiving no health coverage at all. If you are CPO anywhere other than a fledgling startup, you will likely receive an excellent benefits package.
  • Female representation at the leadership level: Nearly 71 percent of chief people officers are female.
  • Membership on the executive or management committee: 70 percent of CHROs serve on their company’s executive committee (a small group of executives who serve as advisors to the board of directors), according to “The rise of the Chief HR Officer,” an eBook from consulting firm KPMG.
  • Direct influence over a company’s culture: With a direct line to the company’s CEO and responsibility for talent-hiring and strategy, diversity, and inclusion, the CPO has an influential position over employees at all levels within a company.

Cons of becoming a chief people officer

  • Lower compensation than other C-level roles: You will be very well compensated (see data above), but compared to your c-level peers—who earn on average $200,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—your compensation might seem moderate. If having to park your BMW next to their Lamborghinis bothers you, you should seek a different chair in the c-suite.
  • Feeling respected within the C-suite: CPOs may find it challenging to be seen as “equals” amongst more traditional executive roles like COOs, CTOs, and CFOs.
  • The competitiveness of the field: Only a small percent of HR professionals make it to a senior-level position, and less than 10 percent of mid-size companies have a C-level head of HR role.
  • Confusion over your acronym: CPO can also stand for Chief Procurement Officer or Chief Product Officer, so people may not immediately be able to tell what you do from your acronym. Yes, it’s a minuscule con, but hey, you’re in the c-suite, where all the cons are minuscule, relatively speaking.
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Kinds of chief people officer careers

The job title for a company’s leader of company culture and human resource management varies depending on the company. Some are c-suite positions; others are not. Titles include:

  • Chief people officer (CPO)
  • Chief talent officer (CTO)
  • Chief human resources officer (CHRO)
  • Head of people, talent, or human resource management
  • Senior vice president/VP of human resources
  • Vice president/VP of human resources
  • Chief/VP/head of talent
  • Chief/VP/head of culture

CPOs usually oversee direct reports from HR department employees like:

  • Human resources managers
  • Talent acquisition managers
  • Employee relations managers
  • Records managers
  • Benefits managers
  • Training managers
  • Compliance advisors
  • Staff coordinator

Educational commitment to become a chief people officer

There is no fixed path to the CPO role. According to the BLS, jobs at the management level in human resources typically require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Some employers require a master’s degree. Even where that’s not the case, a master’s degree should provide a significant advantage when you go job hunting. Useful master’s degrees for HR professionals include:

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a chief people officer

Again, there are no required certifications to work in, or lead, HR, but many such certifications exist. They can’t hurt your résumé, and some employers will expect, if not require, them. PayScale conducted an analysis of over 100,000 HR employees to learn more about how credentials impact HR career success. It found:

  • 34 percent of professionals have at least one certification
  • More than half of CHROs (55.7 percent) and vice presidents (VPs) of HR (51.5 percent) have at least one certification
  • Almost half of HR directors have certifications
  • HR assistants with certifications increase their odds of receiving a promotion in five years by 21.5 percent, while directors increase their chances by almost 25 percent, and HR vice presidents increase their odds by 15 percent

Some of the most common certifications include:

Further accreditation or education for chief people officers

According to analysis from Russell Reynolds & Associates, HR chiefs benefit when they gain expertise in:

  • Organizational development
  • Compensation
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Labor relations
  • Recruiting
  • Benefits
  • HR information technology
  • HR analytics

Typical advancement path for chief people officers

The traditional advancement path to becoming a CHRO involves rising from a recruiter role to an HR generalist or an HR management position. More and more, however, that route is changing. Some candidates come with HR experience, while others may have leadership experience from other business divisions. Data from the consulting firms KPMG and Russell Reynolds and Associates show:

  • A large percentage of CHROs held non-traditional HR leadership roles before advancing to the chief of people role, including positions as diverse as general management (27 percent), finance (21 percent), management consulting (12 percent), sales and marketing (10 percent)
  • There has been a decline in recent years in chief people officers with traditional HR experience. Only half of recently hired CPOs and CHROS have had regional/divisional head of HR experience, compared with 64 percent of candidates hired in previous years. More than a third had learning and talent experience
  • 36 percent of CHROs have international experience
  • 56 percent of CHROs are hired from outside companies
  • 82 percent of CHROs have industry experience from a sector different than their current company
  • The average time a typical CHRO stays in the role Is a little over four years
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Should you become a chief people officer?

This is not a job people typically happen upon, nor is it one you wake up one morning and decide to apply for. Entering the c-suite takes years of preparation, experience, and achievement. If you want to become a CPO, now is the time to start working toward your goal.

Do you want to make a lot of money? C-level officers have some of the highest-paying jobs in the US. You may not make quite as much as the CEO or COO, but you’ll take home a very substantial paycheck, and you’ll likely earn a lot more in additional compensation like bonuses and stock options.

You’ll also be doing important work. As CPO, you’re tasked with making work life for employees a balanced experience and managing a company culture driven by integrity, teamwork, and values. If your strategic and emotionally intelligent mind stands out among your peers, and if you have the fortitude for top-level leadership, a CPO position is not beyond your reach.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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