Could the Chief Human Resources Officer Be the New ‘It’ Role for the Boardroom?


By Coco Brown, Founder & CEO, Athena Alliance

A global pandemic. A remote workforce, with many companies evaluating their return to work or hybrid policies. Constant evaluation and discourse over benefits, employee compensation, diversity and inclusion, and values. The effects of multiple converging social movements on society. Employees reporting higher rates of burnout, with workers changing jobs and resigning at a record rate. Could there be any role more in-demand than the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)?

Central to the rise in the CHRO role is the increasing importance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters. The HR function oversees culture, human capital, compensation, and diversity and inclusion—all of which intersect the “S” and “G” functions within ESG.

I often hear from CHROs that they also hold responsibility for “Places” (e.g., Chief People and Places Officer). “Places” sits firmly in the realm of the “E” in ESG, considering concerns around carbon footprint associated with offices, energy and travel. Coupled with the complexity of human capital in a post-pandemic world, these have led to HR becoming the most strategic, critical role of the modern C-suite—and more in-demand than ever in the boardroom.

There’s been some movement to reflect this changing perception at the top and indications that it will continue to grow. ISS ESG reported that director roles in S&P 1500 companies with HR experience hit nearly 20% in January 2022, up from 11% two years prior. Talent management is now among the top three most-coveted expertise areas in the boardroom.

CHROs in Action: A Look Inside the Boardroom

In practice, as evidenced in Athena Alliance’s CHRO Perspectives Salons, HR leaders are touching on numerous topics that are top-of-mind for boards. Here’s a peek into what some of the world’s top CHROs are thinking.

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Navigating the Return to the Office

“Once people take that step back in the door, there’s a ton of positivity. Like, ‘Wow, I forgot what it was like to be with my colleagues, to be in meetings, to feel like a part of something in person.’ But people also liked to catch their kids’ three o’clock game. We’ve been clear that we’re going to be an in-office culture, but we’re going to think about what flexibility means for each of us.” —Sheri Bronstein, CHRO, Bank of America

Driving and Integrating a Global Culture

“You’re constantly pressure testing values and establishing what’s critical in terms of the behaviors you want to see every day from your employees, and the things you want people to connect to and shape in terms of their day-to-day operating experience and how they align with the company.” —Carmel Galvin, CHRO, Stripe

Taking a Social Stand

“You have all these stakeholders clamoring for companies to weigh in [on social issues]. And, truly, I think it was a myth that companies were never involved. Companies have always exercised their influence.” —Tracy Layney, CHRO, Levi Strauss & Co.

The Relationship Between the CHRO and the Board

“More and more boards want to know about culture. They want to know about attrition. They want to know about diversity… How are you paying people? Are people leaving? Are you losing diverse leaders? Are you growing diverse leadership? What does your ESG strategy look like? All of that is definitely connected.” —Kim Sullivan, CHRO, Concentrix

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The Great Resignation and the War for Talent

“People are looking for deeper connections where they feel understood… Feeling autonomous, personal growth, feeling valued. On top of that, having a focus on holistic wellbeing and feeling cared for. And then, most of all, a shared purpose and feeling invested in the company.” —Laura Butler, CHRO, Talkdesk

How Unicorns Develop Talent While Managing Hyper-Growth

“Educating people while we were building became more and more important. Ultimately, we needed every manager in the company to really understand how we operate, what’s important, how we make decisions, our priorities, and our values so they can make good decisions every day without needing direction from us.” —Amy Reichanadter, Chief People Officer, Databricks

Hot Topics on the Minds of HR Practitioners and Board Directors Alike

“[We’re] looking at a more connected workplace strategy to ensure we can drive a reinvented culture and lean into uncomfortable conversations, whether it’s mental health, dealing with inequities at work, microaggressive behaviors, [or] unconscious bias. We all have to show up as inclusive leaders in order to change some of the behaviors.” —Camille Chang Gilmore, Vice President of HR, Boston Scientific

Cutting-Edge Technology Backing the HR Function with Actionable Data and Analytics

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t think many of us started our careers thinking that we would be technologists, right? And I think many of us also didn’t start our careers thinking about owning a technology stack and really curating it to help us do our jobs, but that’s become imperative.” —Cara Brennan Allamano, Advisor, Former Senior Vice President, People, Udemy

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Compensation Committees and Human Capital Management Regulations

“People are everything, and how you organize your people is what ensures you’re successful.” —Novelette Murray, CHRO, Liquidity Services, Inc.

The Power of Positive Psychology in the Workplace

“My premise is that we can actually use the workplace as our own laboratory for emotional healing.” —Susan Schmitt Winchester, CHRO, Applied Materials

As evidenced by these HR leaders, in a world of growing competition and technological advancements, people have come to the forefront as a critical asset and an authentic competitive advantage. This is a critical time for CHROs to have a seat at the board table.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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About Coco Brown

Coco Brown Headshot

Coco Brown is the founder and CEO of Athena Alliance, having served as the CEO, COO, and president of investor-backed, private companies. Since 2013, she’s served on 10 for-profit and nonprofit boards as a member, advisor, and committee leader, providing input and guidance around M&A, divestiture, audit, CEO succession and compensation, corporate strategy, financial planning, change management, and more. She is an independent board director at ArcherPoint and a member of the Nasdaq Center for Board Excellence Insights Council.

About Athena Alliance

Women join Athena to access the most current business lessons and executive knowledge taught by other women leaders at some of the world’s most reputable brands, one-on-one coaching, career opportunities, and more. Athena also guides CEOs, venture firms, and corporations to evolve their approach to senior leadership development, diversify and strengthen boards, and access a network of the world’s top female leaders. Athena hosts CHRO Perspectives, a monthly forum for HR leaders to discuss executive development trends, workforce management, human capital thought leadership, and more.

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