Jessica Djizeri was the Chief People Officer of Ornikar, France’s leading online driving school, before moving recently to a more entrepreneurial advisory challenge.
Fernanda Alonso is Chief People Officer at Systemiq, the system-change company, founded to drive the achievement of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Before this role, she was the Chief Human Ressources Officer of OpenClassrooms, an education online platform in Europe.
Diane Riviere was the Chief Culture & People Officer of Alan, a digital health company that revolutionizes health insurance. She is now working for Creadev, an evergreen investment company operating worldwide.
What makes a career in people leadership/HR so interesting?
Fernanda: I initially wondered whether HR would be largely an admin-type role and not strategic enough for me. I was completely wrong! From 2008 when the impact of the financial crisis was being felt, talent management moved from being an operational function to being viewed as a strategic enabler and key to success. This was a dramatic change in the perception of HR and brought about a huge transformation, notably in start-ups and scale-ups.
Fast-forward to COVID, alongside a period of hypergrowth, and the Chief People Officer (CPO) role continued to be vital. The last three years have been intensive for CPOs as we’ve dealt with the operational ramifications of new ways of working, followed by restructuring in the tech world. I think it is the most interesting role in a company as you get to see both people and the company growing due to the HR strategy.
Diane : I have found the diversity of company cultures fascinating across the different firms I’ve worked for. For example, after eight years working for Schneider Electric, I joined Amazon and quickly realised that it was total turnaround in terms of how I handled my role as an HR leader simply because of the company culture. I’ve been impressed by how much a strong company culture can drive performance and employee engagement. It can be extremely powerful and foster immense focus and energy across your workforce. It’s why my ambition, after leaving Amazon, was to join another tech company, probably a European one – a company whose purpose could inspire me.
Do you sense disillusionment amongst CPOs that’s stopping them taking up permanent positions?
Jessica: Yes, especially amongst those CPOs who’ve already put in 10 or 15 years in HR. We’ve been through a lot over the past two years, with Covid and the race for talent acquisition that’s been so crazy. There was so much money at one stage and a demand to hire very quickly, but this was impossible to scale. Now, with the financial crisis, we still need to hire but it’s a struggle. In my case – and perhaps other CPOs feel the same – I don’t want to be the company Cassandra who can see what the future holds, but who nobody believes. That’s why I’m sure many CPOs are taking on these project-based roles, rather than permanent positions.
In fact, I saw this myself a few years ago when I took on a mentoring role alongside my day-to-day job. As a mentor, my advice was listened to and acted on far more readily than when I was in my regular job and that’s a nice feeling!
Fernanda: It’s true that many HR leaders are exhausted and looking at other career possibilities, possibly in advisory capacities. They’ve been doing so much, from strategy to operational delivery and reimagining the future of work. Before starting my new role, I took a couple of months off to recharge my batteries and I’m seeing a similar sentiment amongst a number of my peers.
Diane : Yes, there has been an exodus of people leaders; the ever competing priorities of scaling and structuring while racing always behind in terms of resources has been exhausting. In fact, it’s why I switched from being an operational CPO to a role where I am able to influence governance, to advise, to share my experience and to help anticipate growth challenges. All too often, human capital is focused on C-levels. Gathering the right CEO, CFO, etc, and making sure the senior team gets on well, is well educated and works efficiently together matters. What they should also care about is the company culture, how they attract and onboard talent, how fast they want to scale and whether they are actually equipped to scale. It’s failing to consider these aspects that has made it so hard for CPOs in high growth, fast paced companies because they’re always behind the curve.
How can companies show that they value the role of people leader and stop the exodus?
Fernanda: A lot depends on the strategy of the company. After a period of growth and the pandemic, we’re back to restructuring and the people team needs to feel recognised during this time. It’s not just the companies but the HR leaders too who must reset how people leadership is viewed. Founders and CEOs in start-ups and scale-ups need to recognise that CPOs cannot be left on their own. While the HR function supports the company, it too needs support. And for the CPOs themselves, I’d urge them (myself included) to tap into the incredible energy of the wider HR team and be motivated by what the company wants to achieve – and how you can help it realise that ambition.
Jessica : Listen to people leaders. When you hire a senior person, you need to make sure that you use their skills and tap into their previous experience. This can be hard to accept, especially (I’ve noticed) with young entrepreneurs who don’t mind being given the advice but don’t always want to apply it. This is frustrating for the senior exec who’s been brought in to head up a team – and is why many are going freelance.
Diane : It is also the accountability of the company’s board of directors to put the emphasis on human capital in the governance. Walk the talk : if human capital is as critical as it is claimed to be, it should not come as the latest topic, rushed on the board meeting agenda.
What’s the ideal time for a founder to bring in a people leader and other experienced roles?
Jessica : Straight away – or, at least as soon as you have the money! However, tech company founders tend to delay hiring experienced people unless pushed by their investors or because they have some issues. So, it’s not always a willing decision and this makes the job tough for people leaders tasked with first joining and then bringing in other business leaders to take a company to the next stage. Fortunately for me, I’ve worked with founders who understood the value of filling all the regular leadership roles you’d expect in a successful company. If you’re scaling, you need to have the team ready to take on big enterprise-size clients so that you have the expertise to meet their requirements for quality, cybersecurity, GDPR, etc.
Diane : I am currently experimenting this “journey” with one of the companies in our portfolio. Scaled by build-up and at 1,400 people, operating in eight countries, it is already quite a size, but the organization wasn’t aware of what to expect from an HR leader at C-level. Of course, they knew they wanted things like a seamless people operations to be able to attract people and to work on the employer brand. But they only saw pieces of the jigsaw rather than the big picture of what an employee experience was at every stage. So, we are working on educating the leaders on the importance of shaping a company culture and how that company culture will translate into how people decisions are made. Sometimes the right strategy is to hire an interim HR leader who will fix the basics and guide the CEO in setting expectations at the right level before hiring the CPO. I urge founders and CEOs to discuss in depth with their HR leader candidate to ensure that people are joining them for the right challenge and for the right stage of their organisation’s growth.
Fernanda: In order to truly thrive, CEOs must make the people’s agenda a topmost priority right from the outset. Having said that, it’s not imperative for them to immediately employ a full-time People Leader. There are many alternative approaches to infuse these invaluable skills into the business, such as engaging advisors or appointing board members or leveraging the expertise of part-time HRD professionals.
How can companies re-engage with CPOs?
Jessica: While I do think that companies understand the importance of the role, there’s a different attitude towards an internal HR director and someone coming in from outside to deliver a specific project. For example, if you’re paying for an external HR specialist, you’ll certainly listen to them rather than take them for granted! Sometimes it takes an external HR director to understand what the HR director is supposed to do. They also have more freedom in their discussions about what leeway they’ll be given to do it.
So, my advice for founders and CEOs bringing on board a permanent CPO is to sit down with them and establish the full scope of the role and what they need to get the best out of their new people leader. This isn’t just about soft skills and ‘mutual fit’ but about the hard skills needed to drive the company’s people strategy. This might be the ability to hire A-players or to plan, organize and meet deadlines. Or to be a strategic thinker with the expertise to identify opportunities and threats through a comprehensive analysis of current and future trends. I can’t recommend enough the value of a scorecard, both for the potential people leader and for the founders.
Diane : To get Chief People Officers on board, there should be a real commitment from the business leaders and from the board about the human capital ambition. Chief People Officers expect to have an impact on the company growth strategy and also have a voice at board level. The alignment with the CFO is also an important milestone as this will define how many people should be recruited to help the CPO in their journey to scale for instance. Too often, the CPO is not set for success because they are limited in their capacity to invest in both building the HR professional team, and the right information systems and solutions beneath them.
My advice for entrepreneurs and business leaders who are unsure about how to adapt their HR capacity for growth is for them to gain an understanding of why they need to hire and in which capacity. Learning from their peers in companies who have reached higher scale and know about the failures and pitfalls they had to overcome in growing their workforce can help in making better decisions.
How important is the relationship between Founder and CPO?
Fernanda: It is a hugely important relationship and the CPO needs to be inspired by the Founder. But equally important is how you impact and draw on the company culture. As the CPO, you are representing the company internally, so as well as working closely with the Founder, you’ve got to align with the strategy and the overarching culture, which may differ depending on the industry you’re in.
Diane : Building a trustful relationship is essential. Sharing values, a common understanding of the employee experience the founders want to create, agree on HR standards they want to play at; all these will ensure the CPO is empowered to embody the right company culture and deliver the right action plan.