Headhunters wonder, where are all the chief people officers?

Great senior HR talent is scarce these days, headhunters say. Not everyone agrees on why.

A leaking copper pipe

Executives and recruiters say there’s a shortage of strategic, business-oriented HR talent prepared to take over as the next generation of senior people leaders.

Image: E+/Getty Images; Protocol

Britt Sellin wasn’t sure if she was going to retire in 2019. But between ambitious acquisition plans at Cloudera, parents who were getting older, and kids in high school, she knew she couldn’t “do another big year” as the company’s SVP of HR, she said.

Months after she left, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and with it a tidal wave of new challenges crashed into HR teams. As Sellin reflected on her next career move, she said she couldn’t get her “mind wrapped around another job for that amount of work.”

“You can be on vacation, but you’re going to get a call that somebody died in Brazil, and you don’t have a death benefit. Or you’re doing an acquisition and they wanted to let you know that it’s got to be done in 27 days — those 27 days happen to be over the long weekend you were planning to spend with your family,” Sellin said. “When you sign up for a job, you sign up for that.”

Many of the extraordinary challenges of the last two and a half years have fallen on the shoulders of chief people officers like Sellin, leading some of them to step away from operating roles or leave the workforce altogether.

At the same time, executives and recruiters say there’s a shortage of strategic, business-oriented HR talent prepared to take over as the next generation of senior people leaders. The dearth of great chief people officers is leaving companies scrambling — and in some cases, pulling in HR leaders from nontraditional backgrounds.

“Talented HR professionals in general are in high demand, and there’s just not enough of them,” said Brian Kropp, managing director at Accenture. “One of the biggest lessons that I think CEOs have really had is, great C-level HR talent can make or break a company.”

Pressure from the outside

The last few years have brought a world of macro-level uncertainty, shifting power dynamics, and political tensions, both within companies and in the world at large. Between the pandemic, the economic downturn, and social changes, HR leaders are tired.

“A lot of them have decided, ‘Yeah, it’s been a pressure cooker for a number of years now, and I need to step back,’” said John K. Anderson, managing director in the HR practice of the search firm Allegis Partners.

Talented HR professionals in general are in high demand, and there’s just not enough of them.”

HR leaders have been “literally dealing with the life and death of their employees,” Kropp said. Not to mention taking teams remote; hiring rapidly; planning for hybrid work when employees don’t want to return to the office; facing slow gains around DEI; and supporting employees through everything from social justice movements and U.S. political tensions to inflation, economic downturn, and war.

All of this is pushing senior HR talent to leave operating roles, either for retirement, sabbatical, consulting, or VC jobs. Greg Selker, managing director and North American technology practice leader for the recruiting firm Stanton Chase, has seen many HR leaders opt to go into consulting rather than another operating role.

“A lot of them are stepping away to do something else, taking a break for a year from work, whatever it may be,” Kropp said.

Pressures within the company

Traunza Adams stepped down as chief people officer of the software maker H1 after realizing her “values no longer aligned with working in corporate America,” she said. She still advises startups formally and informally, and while she says she “absolutely loved” being a people leader, she’s not planning a return to an operating role anytime soon.

“Once I stopped working, I realized just how stressful it was,” Adams said. “And how nice it is to not have people depending on you every day and being beholden to people and having to fight for what you feel is right.”

HR also tends to take an outsize amount of flack from employees when things aren’t going well — but when things are going well, HR doesn’t get credit, Sellin said.

“If people liked the culture, they would say the CEO and the founders have done a fabulous job,” Sellin said. “If they did not like the culture, their experience wasn’t good, they blamed it on HR.”

Fighting for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives can be particularly trying for HR leaders. Adams said she had to “continually convince” other executives of the business case for building a diverse team, making employees feel included, and implementing equitable policies.

“That’s just continually an uphill battle,” Adams said. “Industrywide, the gains are small, so you get tired of always trying to convince people of the ‘right thing to do.’”

The grass may be greener

People leaders aren’t just fleeing for more work-life balance when they go to other roles. Tracy Keogh, for example, left her role as the CHRO of HP last year after what she said was an “amazing” decade with the IT giant.

But her transition hasn’t been one oriented toward more work-life balance: Keogh said she’s working just as hard as the chief people officer of Great Hill Partners, a $4.65 billion private equity firm that’s backed companies such as Wayfair, Zoominfo, and Bombas.

“I started my career at a startup, so I have a sensibility around small companies and how to help them,” Keogh said. “Very few people have a role like mine, where they do the inside HR and work with portfolio companies. They’re usually dedicated to one or the other. I really love that aspect of this job.”

Keogh said opportunities are opening up for people leaders in private equity; though Great Hill was founded in 1998, the firm never had a chief people officer until she joined. Keogh is a member of a network of HR leaders in PE. The group recently had to break into regional chapters because it got too big to coordinate nationally.

Chris Tobin, who stepped down from his role as SVP of people at Intercom in July, also said his departure was a long-planned transition away from being a full-time HR leader within a company. Now he spends his time advising entrepreneurs and people leaders at high-growth startups.

Despite the “very atypical and nonstop” demands of the last few years, Tobin said he didn’t leave Intercom exhausted.

“I’m not burnt out. I’m excited to focus on this next phase of my career,” Tobin said.

Hunkering down

Not everyone said they’re noticing a postpandemic exodus of senior HR talent. At a certain point in executive careers, retirements and moves to consulting roles are to be expected. But departures aren’t the only explanation for the tight executive talent market.

Kathy Zwickert retired from her role as chief people officer of NetSuite in 2017, not long after Oracle acquired the company for $9.3 billion. Now she’s on the board of tax software company Avalara, and she’s seen the difficulty of hiring HR leaders from the other side.

Avalara struggled to find a people leader who was qualified, had led an HR organization before, and was willing to relocate to Seattle, Zwickert said. But she attributed the slow recruiting process not to an exodus of HR leaders, but to a pandemic-era hunkering down.

“When the return to the office started happening, people were deciding they didn’t want to and they were going to leave. That was a huge challenge for HR,” Zwickert said. “I think it made [senior HR leaders] more attached to their company. They just felt like they’d been through a war together, and a lot of them are just sticking around.”

Nontraditional CHROs

With strong senior HR talent in short supply, some companies are choosing to hire HR leaders who don’t have HR backgrounds — both from traditional disciplines like legal or finance, and other less intuitive ones like marketing.

“Marketing executives have really been thinking about the customer experience, and how do you create an incredible customer experience,” Kropp said. Marketing leaders can apply the same principles of customer experience to employee experience, “Because at some level, it’s the same thing, right?” he said.

Zwickert even recalled a head of engineering colleague who complained “just nonstop” about the company’s HR leader, to the point where the CEO told him, “Guess what? It’s your job now.”

Zwickert herself went into HR over 25 years ago after starting her career as a CPA, a skillset that she said always gave her a leg up as a people leader. A two-week crash course through the Society for Human Resource Management helped prepare her to handle technical HR issues around compliance, employment law, and EEOC and HIPAA requirements.

When the return to the office started happening, people were deciding they didn’t want to and they were going to leave. That was a huge challenge for HR.”

“I don’t think you need a degree or a master’s in HR to run that function,” Zwickert said. “What’s more important is the ability to listen, the ability to understand the business and what the business imperatives are, and then understand your role in that context.”

Adams said she supports bringing in non-HR leaders, especially from departments like marketing or customer success, to run the people function. The basics that execs need to learn are “the easy stuff,” she said.

But not all people leaders agree that executives from other functions becoming heads of HR is a good idea.

“I don’t think marketers or legal folks should be heads of HR, nor do I think HR should report to the CFO or legal,” Tobin said. “The companies who understand the importance of people, talent, and culture, and how it moves the business forward, are companies that have a bit of a competitive advantage.”

Sellin, too, expressed concern that leaders of other functions think they can run HR programs or departments without any prior experience or knowledge.

Robert David, executive director of the nonprofit Community for Strategic HR Partnership, has noticed rising leaders from sales, marketing, and finance moving to HR. “It’s a way to get to the C-suite. It’s a way to get onto a board, if that’s a goal in your career,” David said. “What used to be seen as old, stodgy, fill out the forms and get benefits, it’s really become strategic and tactical, tying in to all parts of the organization.”

HR ‘academies’ have faded

If CHROs are in short supply, it’s not just because established leaders are staying out of the job market. Some HR leaders say there’s also a lack of upcoming talent.

Compared to some other fields in tech, getting a job in HR doesn’t require much specific education or training, and as a result, many of the field’s professionals aren’t strategic enough to succeed as business leaders, Adams said. Rank-and-file HR jobs can be “really easy,” according to Adams, if you can master the basics of recruiting, putting in human resource information systems, running performance reviews, and ensuring employees have their benefits.

“That doesn’t make you a good leader,” Adams said. “What makes you a good leader is being able to think ahead, and being able to understand what the business actually needs, and being able to understand what employees are looking for, and what they’re going to be looking for two years from now.”

Most people leaders cannot manage the gray areas. They’re very black and white.”

This isn’t new: Over the last 15 or 20 years, the demands of people leaders have grown beyond administrative and compliance work to strategizing for the business. But the talent pipeline hasn’t kept up with these increasingly strategic responsibilities.

At the same time, there’s been a shift away from what Keogh called “academy companies” known for training up-and-coming HR talent. GE was one such company, she said.

Sellin named Cisco and Sun Microsystems — where she worked from 1995 to 2007 — as other companies known to have a strong HR function.

Yahoo, Intel, and HP have all produced an outsize number of successful people leaders who have taken leadership roles at other companies, David said. And younger HR pros are now staying at these companies for only a couple of years before moving on to a startup and learning in a “trial by fire” environment, he added.

Training the next generation

Making HP an academy company was a goal of Keogh’s when she was leading HR. More than 40 of her employees have gone on to head HR departments at other companies, she said.

“A lot of my people got recruited out. There’s HP people all over the place,” Keogh said. “One of the headhunters said to me, ‘We love your people because they can deal with complexity.’”

Keogh isn’t the only CHRO working to develop the next generation of leaders. Tammy Polk, the CHRO of Formstack, said she has her team do yearlong rotations through different specialties within HR: recruiting, learning and development, HR insights, total rewards, benefits and compensation, and HR business partner generalist roles.

Polk’s use of this “rotations” practice has already led to one of her reports being made a director of total rewards at age 28.

“Most people leaders cannot manage the gray areas. They’re very black and white,” Polk said. “They have to manage the gray areas and live in risk, frankly. If you can train people to live in risk, they’re going to be a much stronger business partner.”


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