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Daniel Nickel July 8 2021 7 min read

What Makes a CHRO Great?

By Dan Nickel and Sandy Ogg

HR leaders, the people with the “soft skills”, used to be viewed as a mundane but necessary business function. However, CHROs now operating at the core of the enterprise, reporting directly to the CEO, require new skills and abilities to help propel the business forward.

Over the last two decades, CHROs have been given many nicknames: talent guru, strategy enabler, C-suite consigliere, diversity champion, employee experience designer. Regardless of the title, a successful CHRO will inevitably be a trusted business partner and advisor to the CEO. Ten things in particular tend to make them great:

1. They get things done.

Success begins with solid execution. There are a thousand and one daily things that people count on HR for—from employee pay-checks and insurance to onboarding and performance management—and great CHROs keep them all running smoothly.

2. They bring their “maze brightness” to the table.

Great CHROs have a great sense of situational awareness and know-how to navigate in different contexts. They have a grasp of the most critical elements of the entire ecosystem of their business—from the changing concerns of all the many stakeholder groups to the complexities and dynamics of fluid markets and economies. As a highly versatile actor in this ecosystem, they fluidly advocate for the employee, partner with the business, and protect the interests of shareholders.

3. They connect talent to value.

They get the right people in the critical roles. They concern themselves with both the few and the many. They architect and build a capable workforce that will realize the company’s value agenda.

4. They are proactive.

Great HR leaders don’t wait to be told what to do. They dive in and fix issues of safety, performance, and culture. They proactively learn how to connect talent to value throughout their organization. They use innovative approaches and tools that help them rapidly deploy their company’s human capital, along with financial capital, to the organization’s value hotspots.

5. They have courage.

Great CHROs can make a call. They will have a point of view and will be able to defend it. They will not default to safe or politically correct choices. They have a core belief system, based on values, and frame decisions within that context. They have a special combination of integrity, political savvy, and fortitude.

6.They are trusted confidantes and business partners.

Great CHROs develop deep, trusting relationships with all stakeholders and gain the confidence of employees, managers, and board members alike. Their personal values resonate with the organization’s values. They consistently use information for the benefit of the whole enterprise, not for political advancement or the enhancement of their own careers.

7. They can lead, influence, or advise.

Not only are they able to do all three well. They know precisely when it is time to lead, when it is time to persuade, and when it is time to advise. They are analytical and know how to weigh the pros and cons of choices. The chief executive and board value their opinion and trust them to say what needs to be said. CHROs offer a range of options and tell the CEO what they think the “right” decision is.

8. They are able to count.

Great leaders want to be held accountable for helping the business deliver results. They, therefore, connect the dots of people, processes, organization design, and culture. They know the business by the numbers (the metrics, the measurements). They track the value created and captured by people in critical roles and recalibrate mindsets and behaviors to accelerate execution.

9. They stay curious.

The best CHROs stay current with social, political, and business trends. They come equipped with suggestions, ideas, and theories. They express their opinions and are willing to make a case for change with colleagues and senior executives.

10. They remain grounded in reality.

That grounding rests on self-awareness, critical thinking skills, and an intuitive ability to detect bullsh*t. Great CHROs seek to identify, assess and mitigate risks. They understand the human side of the business and realize that “perfect” isn’t always on the menu. They act as an honest broker when things get off track, and seek solutions that consider all sides of the story.


Daniel Nickel

Dan is Managing Partner at CEOworks, an advisory firm to CEOs and boards on deriving and delivering value faster. Previously he served as Executive Vice President, Corporate Operations for Laureate Education and prior to that as Senior VP, Human Resources for Motorola. He is a Life Member of the Disabled American Veterans. Mr. Nickel is also a Vietnam combat veteran with strong interests in veterans’ health care and employment issues.