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Survey Report

The Future Chief People Officer: Imagine. Invent. Ignite.

Why empowered HR leaders are key to capturing growth in the new world of work

January 17, 2020

This study reveals key skills, mindsets and behaviors that will help the chief people officer of the future shape innovative human capital solutions.
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SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy, in partnership with Willis Towers Watson, conducted a global research study to examine the rapidly changing role of the Chief People Officer. Insights are based on direct input from over 500 C-suite executives from organizations across a range of sizes, industries and countries.

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Executive summary

Leaders call for bold change to accelerate business and people growth

A workplace in perpetual fast forward with people at the center. We work in a world where the speed of change is exponentially greater than it has ever been, where the bright light of social media exposes every detail, where people costs and risks are escalating, and where automation and technology present ever-increasing opportunities and challenges to companies.

Future Chief People Officer: Imagine. Invent. Ignite.

Given the rapid pace of technology adoption and democratization of work, the role of the HR executive is undergoing transformative changes.

This is a world where people’s lives inside and outside of the workplace are complex and stressful, and where talent continues to be vital to a thriving organization.

HR’s time is now. We are in the Golden Age of the HR profession, and the chief people officer (CPO) is at the helm. Technology and automation are freeing HR leaders from more administrative and process-related work, powering the CPO’s role to guide the organization in designing and implementing the talent strategies and work options needed to fuel future business growth. As technology and innovation in the workplace accelerate, this role becomes increasingly critical;going forward, the power and strength of an organization’s human capital will be what differentiates success from failure.

Organizations require strong, visionary HR leadership to unlock the opportunities in the new world of work and to address pressing people challenges that impact a company’s bottom line. It’s crucial to move beyond yesterday’s HR models as the cost of inaction can be catastrophic for the company. The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture study estimates that 49% of people have thought about leaving their current organization, and one in four dreads going to work. The cost of productivity loss due to unplanned absences is approximately $431 billion per year.1 In the U.S. alone, the cost of chronic disease, work-related injuries and illnesses, stress and employee disengagement was $2.2 trillion annually (or 12% of GDP).2

Finally, facing global talent shortages, organizations also risk productivity losses if they ignore the imperative to reskill. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, 75 million jobs are expected to be displaced by 2022. Concurrently, due to advances in technology and new ways of working, as many as 133 million new roles could be created. However, to prepare and reskill the workforce for these new opportunities will require the CPO’s substantial attention; the World Economic Forum estimates that on average, 42% of the skills required to perform a job will shift between 2018 and 2022.3

What kind of leader do you want to be? With a new urgency to get the people equation right or risk negative business consequences, the CPO of the future must adopt an ambidextrous mindset driving strategic business initiatives in the C-suite while continuing to deliver flawlessly on administrative and operational tasks. This requires letting go of legacy mindsets and practices that hold back the performance and effectiveness of the HR function.

To meet this mandate, there must be a commitment on the part of HR leaders to continue to evolve in order to ensure that the business maintains its competitive advantage; however, HR leaders can’t go it alone. This also requires the same commitment from their C-suite peers, the CEO and the board to transform the work of HR and radically reset expectations for the CPO role.

There’s near universal agreement that CPOs in the future will need different skill sets and experiences from those they have today. In fact, our survey findings show that 94% of all senior business leaders — including CPOs (95%), CEOs (93%), members of the board of directors (92%) and other C-suite members (94%) — believe it is important to explore accelerating the growth and development of the HR executive of the future. In particular, our survey shows that CPOs need further development in three key areas to meet the challenges of the new world of work: digital business acumen, learning and reskilling, and data science. However, only about a third (35%) of participants believe that future CPOs are getting the development they will need.

Imagine, invent and ignite change. Our research reveals an urgent need for CPOs and their organizations to take bold steps to:

  • Imagine the future of HR and the central role of the CPO in a constantly evolving work ecosystem.
  • Invent new ways of working and new talent solutions, striving for the optimal combination of human talent and automation.
  • Ignite a path forward, identifying and capturing opportunities to unlock business value.

The study findings bring forward five pivot points that constitute an urgent and multifaceted call to action for the CPO and other senior executives in their organizations:

  1. 01

    Push boundaries to power organizational agility.

    The HR leader plays an important role in enabling agility in the broader organization as well as the HR function. To do so, however, requires agility on the part of the HR executive who must serve as architect of new and enhanced business initiatives essential to the organization’s future, while continuing to support HR’s vital operational activities.

  2. 02

    Unleash digitalization.

    CPOs must develop the digital business acumen to understand how technical skills fit into the workplace and how to make best use of people as organizations implement digital technologies to unlock greater business value.

  3. 03

    Embrace perpetual work reinvention.

    As technology gives rise to new ways of working and new work options that may include automation, work itself will be continuously reinvented. It is the CPO who orchestrates the many emerging options for getting work done and determines how to best combine human talent and automation. To keep up with perpetual work reinvention and changing skill requirements, the HR leader must make continuous learning and reskilling a core component of the new employment deal.

  4. 04

    Rethink culture and leadership.

    Attracting and engaging a global, multigenerational workforce that may include free agents and alliance partners require an inclusive culture that extends beyond traditional organizational borders so that all talent feel vested in a common mission and purpose. As a result, HR executives must be able to lead people in nonhierarchical, fluid work environments and empower talent on the front lines to drive problem solving and innovation.

  5. 05

    Elevate HR decision science.

    From predicting talent shortages to enhancing the talent experience to making better business cases in the boardroom, decision science and analytics enable HR leaders to progress from anecdotal to evidence-based thinking, critical to having impact as business executives.

This call to action represents an opportunity for HR leaders to chart a new path forward as they prioritize growth opportunities and prepare the next generation of CPOs to lead the business in the future. Serving as both a reality check and action guide, our study examines the key skills, mindsets and behaviors that will help the CPO of the future shape rigorous and innovative human capital solutions.

In a constantly evolving workplace, the role of the CPO is to imagine, invent and ignite the change that will ensure the ongoing relevance of its talent and forward-looking work strategies essential to an organization’s future business success.

For access to footnote references, please download the PDF of the report.

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About the Study

This study will guide senior HR leaders and their organizations to better understand how rapid technological innovation and the democratization of work are expanding the role of the CPO. In undertaking this research initiative, SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy (HRPS), partnered with Willis Towers Watson to examine the following critical issues:

  • How do organizations (re)position their talent and culture to change and grow in an accelerating digital world?
  • What does this mean for the HR executive of the future?
  • What are the experiences, knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to drive business growth?
  • How does HR support and enable the organization to become the hub of a larger ecosystem for work?
  • What game-changing issues do HR executives face in managing the many challenges associated with the future of work?

The data underpinning this study are robust and include:

  • Direct input from over 500 leaders, including 230 CPOs and 300 C-suite executives, CEOs, board members and academics (this included 60 in-depth interviews with CPOs, CEOs, corporate board members, C-suite executives and academics, and secondary research covering dozens of recent research reports and publications)
  • Responses to an online survey from 425 HR executives, CEOs, board members and other C-suite executives from organizations across a range of sizes, industries and countries
  • Feedback from participants in four CPO focus groups
  • Case studies from numerous organizations that illustrate the identified themes in action



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