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Setting the CEO-CHRO Relationship Up for Success

In today's competitive global business environment, the relationship between the CEO and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) is more critical than ever. For organizations to effectively adapt, evolve, and thrive, the CEO and CHRO must work closely together as strategic partners. While this partnership is essential, it does not always develop organically and requires intentional effort to cultivate.


Today we will explore how CEOs and CHROs can proactively set up their relationship for success through a shared understanding of roles, effective communication practices, trust-building, and alignment on people strategies.


Research Foundation for the CEO-CHRO Partnership

Before delving into practical tips, it is important to establish the research foundation demonstrating the importance of the CEO-CHRO relationship. Studies have consistently shown a link between high-quality CEO-CHRO partnerships and positive organizational outcomes (Shaw et al., 2013; Wolfe and Vlassopoulos, 2014). When the CEO and CHRO are aligned on people strategies and work closely together, companies see benefits such as improved employee engagement, higher productivity and performance, lower turnover, and more innovation (Ulrich et al., 2013). However, research also indicates CEO-CHRO partnerships are often underdeveloped due to lack of clarity on roles, insufficient communication practices, and misaligned priorities (Agarwal et al., 2012).


The following sections explore specific actions CEOs and CHROs can take to overcome these challenges and set their relationship up to maximize value.


Clarifying Roles and Expectations

One foundational step for an effective CEO-CHRO partnership is clearly defining each person's role and establishing mutual expectations. Without role clarity at the outset, miscommunications and duplications of effort are likely to occur (Ulrich and Dulebohn, 2015). CEOs should view the CHRO as a strategic thought partner and delegate appropriate authority, while CHROs must be willing to provide candid people insights to the CEO. Together, the CEO and CHRO should have an initial discussion to:


  • Outline the CHRO’s responsibilities for developing and executing people strategies aligned to business goals

  • Establish how the CHRO will interact with and support other C-suite executives

  • Determine meeting cadences for agenda planning and regular touchpoints

  • Agree on expectations for the CHRO to challenge the CEO’s thinking where needed

  • Clarify what types of people issues and decisions each person will handle independently versus jointly


Establishing clarity around roles and responsibilities upfront lays the foundation for an effective working relationship focused on collaboration rather than confusion.


Case Study: Apple

When Tim Cook became CEO of Apple in 2011, he took time with the new CHRO, Denise Young Smith, to align on their partnership. According to articles in Fortune and Forbes, Cook viewed Smith as a strategic advisor and gave her authority to drive people strategies. In return, Smith committed to understanding Cook's vision and supporting it through talent initiatives. With clarity on expectations and accountability, Cook and Smith worked closely as a “leadership duo” through a period of massive growth at Apple. Their aligned partnership demonstrated how role clarity helps optimize CEO-CHRO collaboration.


Mastering Communication Practices

Regular, transparent communication is another key to a thriving CEO-CHRO relationship. Lack of communication is one of the biggest factors causing partnerships to break down (Ulrich and Dulebohn, 2013). To facilitate productive discussion, CEOs and CHROs should commit to the following best practices:


  • Schedule weekly check-ins for brief status updates and agenda preview

  • Hold monthly hour-long strategic conversations to discuss business challenges/opportunities and people implications

  • Share calendars to maximize opportunities for informal touchpoints

  • Leverage collaboration tools to log action items and discussion notes accessible by both parties

  • Solicit feedback after meetings to continuously refine communication effectiveness

  • Be transparent in conveying priorities, challenges, and decisions early to enable joint problem-solving


Open communication prevents surprises and allows CEOs and CHROs to surface issues proactively as a team. Regular information sharing fosters trust and solutions-focused partnership.


Case Study: Starbucks

When Kevin Johnson became CEO of Starbucks in 2017, frequent and transparent communication with Chief Partner Officer Rosalind Brewer was prioritized. According to interviews, they scheduled weekly one-on-ones and ad hoc "corridor conversations" to align. By continuously coordinating priorities and soliciting each other's perspectives, Brewer felt empowered to challenge Johnson to consider people factors in decisions. Their collaborative approach supported Starbucks' massive growth while maintaining a people-first culture. This case demonstrates the value of regular CEO-CHRO engagement.


Building Mutual Trust and Understanding

No CEO-CHRO relationship can succeed without a foundation of trust and understanding between the individuals. This level of trust is built over time through behaviors like:


  • Demonstrating integrity by keeping commitments and acknowledging mistakes

  • Respecting different points of view through active listening without judgment

  • Maintaining confidentiality of private discussions

  • Establishing psychological safety to provide candid yet constructive feedback

  • Serving as a thought partner beyond just a transactional exchange of information

  • Socializing professionally and personally to enhance personal connection


Consistently demonstrating dependability, respect, care for the other, and willingness to be vulnerable ultimately allows CEOs and CHROs to have the difficult people conversations needed for business success.


Case Study: Microsoft

When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he knew gaining the trust of Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan would be critical for changing the company's culture. Nadella built trust with Hogan through one-on-one lunches, visiting employees together, and exhibiting psychological safety in brainstorming sessions. As reported in Harvard Business Review, this trust allowed Hogan to provide Nadella insights into reinvention initiatives from a people lens. Their collaborative partnership has been a key driver propelling Microsoft's successful business transformation in recent years.


Aligning on Strategic People Initiatives

With shared clarity on roles, open lines of communication, and a foundation of trust established, CEOs and CHROs are ready to become true strategic partners by aligning on specific people initiatives tied to business objectives. This involves:


  • Co-creating a 3-5 year people strategy roadmap linked to organizational goals

  • Jointly prioritizing 2-3 “big bet” initiatives for intensive focus and investment in a given year

  • Together determining metrics to regularly review initiative effectiveness

  • Partnering to gain support from other executives and rally the organization

  • Serving as a united front in communicating people priorities externally


By working as a strategic unit, CEOs and CHROs ensure people considerations are incorporated from the beginning of key decisions like M&A activity, restructuring, or culture change efforts.


Case Study: Merck

In a Harvard Business Review case study, Merck demonstrated the impact of aligned CEO-CHRO strategic partnership. Former CEO Ken Frazier and CHRO Robert Davis worked in lockstep to develop integrated talent strategies addressed skills needed for the company's digital transformation. They jointly gained resources for leadership development programs and DE&I initiatives that helped reshape the organization. As a result, Merck outperformed industry peers in financial performance and employee engagement during their tenure, illustrating benefits of co-creating aligned strategic people roadmaps.


Conclusion

In today's dynamic business climate, people strategy is increasingly a key competitive differentiator. For organizations to thrive, CEOs must view CHROs as true strategic advisors and partners rather than just operational leaders. By taking steps up front to clarify roles, build strong communication practices, establish trust, and align strategically, CEOs and CHROs set their partnership up for success. With focused yet flexible collaboration, they can proactively tackle any people challenges alongside new opportunities on the horizon. Ultimately, the quality of the CEO-CHRO working relationship itself determines the extent to which human capital can optimally fuel positive business outcomes in a volatile, uncertain world.


References


  • Agarwal, U. A., Datta, S., Blake-Beard, S., & Bhargava, S. (2012). Linking LMX, innovative work behaviour and turnover intentions: The mediating role of work engagement. Career Development International, 17(3), 208–230. https://doi.org/10.1108/13620431211241063

  • Shaw, J. D., Park, T. Y., & Kim, E. (2013). A resource‐based perspective on human capital losses, HRM investments, and organizational performance. Strategic Management Journal, 34(5), 572-589. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2025

  • Ulrich, D., & Dulebohn, J. H. (2015). Are we there yet? What's next for HR? Human Resource Management Review, 25(2), 188-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2015.01.004

  • Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W., & Ulrich, M. (2013). The state of the HR profession. Human Resource Management, 52(3), 457–471. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21536

  • Wolfe, M. T., & Vlassopoulos, M. (2014). C-level effects on corporate social responsibility. Journal of Management Studies, 51(6), 894-918. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12074

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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