Matters Column

Fulfilling the function of the CPO — chief people operative

October 23, 2015
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As organizations grow, they bring on various functions to deal with issues that crop up.

Actually what happens is they formally recognize someone to manage “stuff” that keeps re-occurring and has to be “handled.” The level of expertise usually starts out low and grows over time as the problems get more complex.

You can almost predict the order of establishment. The line functions come first, followed by various staff functions. In fact, some staff functions like IT may actually remain as out-sourced contract support until the organization gets to be almost a mid-sized operation. Marketing and public relations spins out of sales at various points, depending on the nature of the business.

One of the last functions to come along is typically human resources, which is somewhat surprising in that it is a rare organization where issues involving staff aren’t there almost from the beginning. 

At some point, the responsibility for such matters is designated to someone other than the president or executive director, who is usually the one making employee-related decisions. The responsibility typically is given to the finance “executive” because the HR role is often directed at keeping records, and finance is good at that.

That logical decision of delegation generally undermines the organization for years, unless the finance executive is a very enlightened individual. There actually are a number of such people in this function that look at the needs of the organization outside the numbers on a page. If this person has this ability, it will be instrumental to the long-term development of the organization.

Sometimes the delegation of HR duties goes to the administrative assistant. This can be OK, but it usually pushes the activities into an administrative function. It is a matter of how this role supports the organization.

The critical issue in this discussion about the delegation of HR matters concerns the focus of the responsible party. If it is administrative in nature, related activities will be about keeping accurate records. This is where the personnel department got started. It has a very limited role in influencing what happens to the organization. Hugh opportunities are missed.

If the person with the HR responsibility views the role as maximizing the people contribution, the results are dramatically better. Symbolically, this is the distinction expected to be conveyed by naming the responsibility Human Resources or Human Capital Management and making the function report at the top level of the organization.

In doing so, the focus is entirely different and the impact on the organization can have tremendous positive outcomes. Of course, it depends on who is selected for the position. For the moment, let us assume the person selected is a respected and strong leader. Now what?

Getting the position of Chief People Operative is not enough; you have to do something. The first step is to determine what the organization is doing or where it wants to go. The things to consider are the mission, vision and values statements and see if they are words or drivers.

The CPO also needs to see what the strategic plan looks like. If there is no formal document or one that is ineffective, the first responsibility is to get that in place and operating. The word “operating” is critical. A strategic plan that sits on the shelf is only a plan, not an operating tool.

With the strategic plan in hand, the CPO now knows what needs to be done, who is expected to do it and when it is supposed to happen. This is critical information. However, one more step needs to be taken. The CPO must do an analysis to determine what tools and resources are needed to accomplish the goals in the plan. The nature of these resources actually spans a broad range of items. It may be having budgets that make it possible, having essential tools, facilities and programs.

It certainly involves having the right people to do the necessary work and a culture that facilitates and engages people in the goals and objectives of the organization. It also means management of time and coordination of activities. This is not just a once a year effort that happens with a team that goes on a weekend retreat. 

The CPO should be the most cross-operational position in the organization with the exception of the CEO. This position needs to have an involvement in all aspects of the organization, because to get the primary job done, this person needs to know from a people perspective what is needed, what is not needed, what road blocks have to be eliminated and how to protect the organization. 

By the way, the CPO still has to fight the alligators. Up to this point, I have been focusing on the big picture: draining the swamp. For those who might not be familiar with the saying: “It’s hard to remember you are there to drain the swamp when the alligators are biting at your bum.” The CPO also has the routine matters of record-keeping, policy, recruitment, compensation and benefits, and employee relations to address.

These matters don’t go away, and in some respects are essential to the big picture issues. In fact, if they are perceived as part of the solution to addressing the needs of the strategic plan, dealing with the day-to-day matters makes more sense and does not become the routine gristmill operation many HR people perceive as the norm.

Recruiting, retention and engagement are all essential to goal achievement and succession management. Making sure the environment accommodates all the regulations and supports personal goals is not an easy task. Doing it efficiently means taking advantage of available technology and outsourced services.

The critical point of being the CPO is leading the organization from the front and not being the function that is still trying to dig their way out of the dustbin of the past, where the actions you perform are tolerated because of regulatory necessity, instead of shaping an organization that has impact on its universe.

Ardon L. Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting and Services.

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