Chief Human Resources Officer: A job you … want?

Chief Human Resources Officer

In a new article on Harvard Business Review, there’s a funny story about the concept of a Chief Human Resources Officer:

Lucia Luce Quinn is Chief People Officer at Forrester Research. Earlier in her career, she left a position as SVP of business development and emerging businesses to join Boston Scientific in a senior line job. Upon arriving, she flatly refused the CEO’s offer of the CHRO role. He had to ask her four more times, including once on a conference call with the whole executive team, before she finally relented.

Basically, this woman turned down a Chief Human Resources Officer role four-five times, including once when she was backed into a corner on a conference call (classy play by that CEO, as an aside). Why? In her words: she thought she must have done something wrong.

This is logical. Companies care about making money, predominantly. Human Resources does not make money on face. So why would a hard-charging executive want to run that team?

Plus: HR has a bad rap at most companies. It’s often not empowered to do anything, and usually it creates more impediments to stuff getting done than it does solve problems. At most companies, execs barely care about the department — until they need a rival forced out the door, of course.

But what if being a Chief Human Resources Officer could be a strategic value-add?

The rise of the Chief Human Resources Officer

I guess this is the simplest way I could explain this:

  • Most companies focus intensely on process and product.
  • They tend to view people as replaceable.

In 100 years, who knows? There might be about 30% of jobs for people available as there are now. But it’s not 100 years from now. It’s today! And because people still work in organizations — in fact, bureaucracy is exploding — we should care about people more. We should optimize them to do the best they can for themselves and the company.

This would all come from the “shop” of a Chief Human Resources Officer.

In that way, it could be a super-strategic role. Think on stuff like:

  • How will promotions work?
  • What will we do about salaries and reporting?
  • How can we optimize the hiring process?
  • What’s our succession plan?
  • How can we get more out of the top employees?
  • What are we doing to make managers more effective?

All those things matter — and a lot. They actually matter more than “What’s our unit cost on this widget?”

What normally happens, though

Some organizations are forward-thinking and have the Chief Human Resources Officer doing those things.

Most, though:

  • Barely acknowledge HR’s existence
  • Only kick it “hair-on-fire” or “cover-your-ass” projects
  • Use it as an internal cop
  • Staff it with hot 20-something women

If those bullet points are how your org treats HR, then you can go get a homeless person and make them Chief Human Resources Officer. It won’t make a difference. You could honestly just outsource the function at that point and it would be exactly the same.


Last FT job I had the HR team was 3-4 people, and the Chief Human Resources Officer had a title like “Chief Organizational Evangelist” or some bullshit. Best I could tell, she (a) spent 2 weeks once hiring a nanny for the CEO and (b) ran point on some annual employee survey that the rest of the executive team subsequently completely ignored. She probably made a solid $150,000 for that. Fun times, yea?

What you do with your people is, by definition, strategy. So yes, a Chief Human Resources Officer can be a strategic role. In fact, it must.

Ted Bauer


  1. A couple of months ago I interviewed for a HR manager job (essentially CHRO, it would have been the highest ranking HR position) at a small but growing nonprofit.

    The job spec seemed to indicate there was a possibility for the position to play a big role in the transformation of the org as it grew: identifying people who were qualified and passionate to address a pressing social need in a major US city. Great—I was interested.

    The spec did throw out some requirements for certification, years of experience, etc. I was on the low end of the latter (but still within their specified range) and signed up for a certification prep course to satisfy the former—even if I didn’t end up getting an offer and taking the job, I’d still be able to use the material at my current employer/keep it around for future gigs.

    I had studied nonprofit management under the org’s CEO and felt strongly about her vision for leadership; I was fairly confident this wasn’t going to be a typical box-checking/ATS process management job.

    Unfortunately, the position was to report to the CFO, who I soon intuited was a little less than visionary and who didn’t seem to communicate much with his executive partner (let’s just say I think he was only consulted for the “requirements” part of the spec). During the interview, I spent ten minutes explaining what distance learning was (“you mean you can take a class online, live, with a teacher???!? back in my day i had to go sit in a lecture hall!!!”) and he barely left any room to talk about the org and how he saw the position within the org/future growth plans, preferring to grill me for an hour about my technical skills (“so, uh, can you use an ATS? Oh, you used Paylocity once? What about ADP? Paychex?”).

    He proceeded to wrap up the interview by negging my background (“well, you don’t have this, this, and this, but you seem like a nice young man, and the CEO said you were smart, and also no one else that’s applied has really met my qualifications, so I GUESS you can come in for an in-person”).

    Now look, I’m all for being honest with someone and laying your doubts out on the table, but when the feedback is 75% negative and 25% positive, and you just spent an hour telling me in so many words this job is building and maintaining an ATS and fixing a VOIP when it goes down, do you really expect me to accept your offer to interview in person?

    Long story short, this wasn’t a lofty job at some corporate titan’s HQ (wouldn’t really excuse the CFO’s behavior, but would perhaps explain some of his viewpoints); it was a HR manager job at a small nonprofit paying $50k a year. If nonprofits can’t make use of the fact that their main competitive advantage for recruiting talent is their mission and those who feel strongly about helping the org achieve said mission (instead resorting to straight-line careerists they can’t hope to attract given their paltry salary and working conditions), that’s troubling. The guy was waaaaay too focused on the formal credentials for the job and marginally interested in promoting the org’s mission and how this role would help them achieve said mission. That, to me, doesn’t help HR evolve out of the proverbial box it’s been placed in.

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