Aug 3 2023

When to Hire Your First Chief People Officer

(Post 1 of 4 in the series of Scaling CPO’s)

In most startups, the HR function starts out as tactical, because you have to get people hired and paid, and while you might have a founder or early-stage employee who can do these things, often these tasks are frequently outsourced to a PEO.  As the company grows, it probably in-sources payroll and benefits, hires a recruiter, and maybe has an HR Manager who handles the function. Depending on the number of roles you see being filled, the degree of specialization, or a host of other factors, an in-house team to handle the tactical aspects of HR makes a lot of sense. But at some point you may need to hire a Chief People Officer.

One sign that it’s time to hire a Chief People Officer is if you feel that you’re the driver of company values, that you’re the one talking about values and viewing the company and interactions with that lens—but you’re the only one that cares about the core values. If your HR function is only focused on the tactical aspects of the role and not on how values drive the company, you’ll need to consider a full-time People Officer because focusing on tactical functions only will not help your company scale.

Another sign is if you are spending too much of your own time training managers and leaders or working on interpersonal dynamics on your leadership team. What’s the right amount of time? I think of these tasks (if you’re a a CEO) as things where you should be more like a consultant rather than the driving force behind them. If you find that a large portion of your day or week is filled with people ops activities, it’s time to think about hiring someone.

A third sign that it might be time to hire a People officer can happen when your board asks you what your talent strategy is with respect to improving diversity, retention, and engagement metrics, while simultaneously decreasing average employee salary, and you don’t have a great answer. While it’s acceptable—occasionally—to not know the strategy at a detailed level for a particular part of your business, if you get asked a question by your board and haven’t the faintest idea on how you can get an answer, that ‘s a good sign that you should consider brining in a full-time Chief People Officer.

A fraction Chief People Officer may be a great option, especially if you have a very competent HR manager or director who has strategic inclinations but not enough experience operating as a strategic executive.  If you have a person who just needs a little more supervision in order to “level up” then a fractional executive could be helpful. Or, if you need someone to play more of a consigliere or team coach role to your executive team but don’t want to engage a coach — and your day-to-day HR leader is getting the job done but too junior to facilitate workshops for the senior team, a fractional executive would work. Finally, if you have a very junior HR function or are insourcing it for the first time and need help setting up the whole function from scratch at an advanced size relative to other functions, a fractional executive would be helpful.

As a startup it’s easy to focus on the day-to-day operational details of the People Ops team because those things—payroll, benefits, hiring, onboarding—are tangible and have metrics associated with them. But those things won’t help you scale. If you want to scale your company, if you want to go from $2 million in revenues to $50 million you’ll need to have a person in your organization who is passionate about the values and passionate about helping individual contributors and leaders connect their work to the values. A Chief People Officer will be able to step in and be a leader to the leadership team; after all, companies are built into greatness by people, so this key position is pivotal to the company. 

(You can find this post on the Bolster Blog here)