How to Hire the Right Chief People Officer

How to Hire the Right Chief People Officer

Hey Bill – Thanks for your advice in ‘Press Go’ on hiring the right executive to lead sales. I’m recruiting HR executives to fill my startup’s Chief People Officer (CPO) position. Any tips on hiring the right HR leader?” – Joel

Thanks for your question Joel. The right CPO has to be good at many things – reinforcing culture and values; overseeing training, professional development and performance management; salary and stock option administration; implementing HR systems and processes; team building; recruiting and employee retention. And more. Don’t expect to find a candidate who excels at all of them. But I do have a set of interview questions that I’ve developed based on some of the bad hiring decisions I’ve made in the past. Here goes:

1. “Do you like people?”

I smile as I ask that. To soften my question, I explain that I’m really attempting to understand what drew the candidate to the Chief People Officer role.
Zuzu was a very highly credentialed CPO, with an MBA and a PhD in organizational design. Her resume portrayed Zuzu as a very successful executive who led HR at several large corporations. She knew her stuff. But I don’t think that she liked people. She rarely left her office, never visited any of our seven remote locations and was always the first to leave
company gatherings. CPOs must be able to connect an employee’s work to the corporate mission to make them feel valued. You can’t do that from the privacy of your office. Zuzu checked most of the boxes – except she just
didn’t like people. I should have asked that during her interview. Now I always do.

2. “If you start the quarter with 126 employees, and you hire 27, but 14 resign – how employees do you have at the end of the quarter?”

That’s another tongue-in-cheek question I use to start a conversation about a candidates math skills.
Robert wasn’t my only CPO that struggled with math. With Robert, I was never sure how many employees I really had. And when he ventured from recruiting and retention (addition/subtraction) — to salary increases, bonuses and commissions (multiplication) — or stock options vesting schedules (long division) – his dyscalculia caused him to break out in a heavy sweat.
Leading HR requires both soft and hard skills. There’s a significant finance component to the job. According to Pat Wadors, former LinkedIn Chief Human Resources Officer, 80% of a company’s operating expenses are talent-related. The CPO is charged with managing those expenses.

3. “Do you have a good sense of humor?”

I no longer have to ask that. I know that the candidate must have a good sense of humor if they didn’t flip me off and storm out of my office after they heard my first two questions.

4. “What is the biggest mistake that your last boss would have made – if you weren’t there to stop him?”

I ask that question to see if I can trust the candidate not to divulge confidential information.
My strongest company relationships are with my CPO, my CFO and the executive charged with driving strategy. I’m not suggesting that they are the most important roles – but they are the executives that I work most closely with. I expect my CPO to be my critic and advisor. I’m their main client. I seek and value their coaching. And I need to know that they will not divulge my mistakes at their next job interview.
I’m looking for a response like, “I’m not really comfortable discussing that.” Or a diversionary answer like, “Let me tell you about the biggest mistake that I made.”

5. “In your mind, do you work for and represent the Company or the employees?”

Jason, the CPO at one of my professional services firms, saw himself as the champion of the people. He was always advocating for the employees.
Meetings with him felt like collective bargaining sessions. I want a CPO who believes in always doing the right thing, and is an ambassador to my employees and an advocate for my Company.

6. “What are your thoughts on our customer value proposition and our go-to-market model?”

I ask that question because I want a CPO that can hold their own in my management team meetings — an executive that understands our business and can apply the ‘people lens’ to our goals and challenges.
Monica was not interested in our business. She did not actively participate in my staff meetings until the agenda reached her HR topics. But she actively took notes during the entire meeting. At least I thought so until she left her notebook open during a coffee break. Chris, one of my direct reports, handed it to me and said, “you’ve got to see Monica’s notes!” The notebook was titled ‘Staff Meeting.’ Every page had the date in the header.
But the entire book was filled with 150 pages of doodles.

7. “What activities are you involved with when you aren’t working?”

I’m trying to determine if the candidate is a networker. Can they develop relationships that can support the company’s recruiting and leadership development initiatives? Can they contribute to building my company’s brand in the communities in which they operate?

In summary, my seven questions help me to not repeat CPO recruiting mistakes that I’ve made in my past. There’s a lot more to cover in the interview process. I believe that the most important trait of a Chief People Officer is honesty and
authenticity – the ability to win people’s trust. They cannot be successful without that quality. But there isn’t a single question that will uncover that.
Does the candidate share all the facts, even if some of them aren’t flattering? Do they come across as humble and compassionate? Do you feel relaxed around them? After the interview, do they follow through with their actions? But mostly it comes down to gut feel. How’s your gut feel track record?

Send your questions about entrepreneurship to [email protected]