HR leaders have had a lot to contend with over the past few years — they’ve helped their organizations weather significant crises and experienced profound and rapid changes in how their business operates, their organization sources its talent, and their people interact and work. CHROs play a central role in leading their companies through dramatic shifts and upheavals, forcing them to adapt quickly and assume new responsibilities as the HR function itself undergoes a rapid transformation and demands on the function increase — sometimes with minimal or no incremental investment.
Our 2023 Voice of the CHRO Survey explores how prepared top HR leaders based in the United States are to meet these challenges, provides insights into what CHROs can do to increase their effectiveness, and reveals how CHROs need to adapt to be ready for the future of work, an increased reliance on digital tools and technology, and changing expectations for the HR function.
- Financial services
- Life sciences
Mercer 2023 CHRO Survey results overview
Organizations by size
Respondents by role
Respondents by tenure
Different experiences, similar perspectives
Ready, yet not ready
Despite most (86%) — including 79% of first-time CHROs — saying they felt extremely or very well prepared for the role, the CHROs we surveyed acutely sense the challenges and growing pains brought on by a rapidly transforming world of work. These sea changes compel them to pivot, fundamentally adjusting their approach to meet the demands of their role and move their organizations forward.
Four in 10 respondents said they wish they had known more about non-HR topic areas — particularly finance and operations — before stepping into the CHRO position. Forty-one percent of CHROs expressed a desire for greater depth in data analytics, and 39% wished they’d known how to work with the board upon assuming their roles. As one respondent noted, “There are a lot of firsts in a CHRO role that can be really challenging to prepare for until you’re in the role.” Gaining more experience in non-HR areas required them to meet the moment through on-the-job learning or negotiating “sink or swim” situations, requiring CHROs to adapt quickly.
What do you wish you had known when you were starting as a CHRO/Chief People Officer?
What CHROs wish they’d known before assuming their roles — additional responses
|Focus area||Representative CHRO responses|
Business understanding and strategy
|Organizational dynamics and politics||
|Advocating for the HR function||
|Personal leadership —the courage to be the outlier in the C-suite||
|Business understanding and strategy||
A need for more business acumen
While CHROs may be well-versed in the nuances of HR and confident experts in their own discipline, these accomplished HR experts acknowledge that they often lag behind as corporate experts. Seven in 10 (69%) of first-year CHROs we surveyed said they wish they’d known how to better partner with the board upon assuming their role, and more than one in five CHROs wish they’d known how to work with the C-suite.
These findings have important implications for their development, suggesting CHROs could benefit from more exposure to boards and the C-suite earlier in their careers. More board exposure — coupled with a stronger focus on cross-functional experiences, participation in non-HR initiatives, and relationship-building with other successors and emerging leaders — could help HR leaders strengthen their relationships and cross-functional acumen as they enter the C-suite. This could lead to more fruitful executive and board interactions and allow CHROs to gain the vital experiences and business and industry knowledge that come only through collaborating with non-HR functions and greater exposure to enterprise-wide and other functional business challenges. Finding opportunities to work with other leaders and senior executives across their organization can also help combat another significant challenge facing CHROs: isolation.
Craving connection and coaching
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents identified mentoring by a seasoned HR/people leader as vital.
More than half (58%) said participating in a peer network would be beneficial.
Over 40% saw a short-term impact plan and executive coaching as critical to their development and effectiveness as HR leaders.
A recurring theme in the survey responses — troubling and ironic — is that while CHROs are strong advocates for mentoring and coaching for others, they themselves are often overlooked and fail to receive this critical support. Without coaching and mentoring, CHROs may miss vital development opportunities and feel depleted, compromising their ability to continue supporting the C-suite and others in their organization. As one respondent lamented, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
However, ensuring CHROs have adequate support structures to aid their development and help them feel connected is sometimes more complicated. HR leaders’ access to sensitive information can affect their ability to form relationships — they may feel restricted when soliciting help or advice, limited by the “cone of silence” that often surrounds leaders who occupy a role where data privacy and discretion are paramount. And CHROs’ dual role as the HR Business Partner to the senior-most executives in the organization may lead those executives to relate to CHROs with some degree of caution or formality. Perhaps for this reason, HR leaders do some of their most productive networking and development with fellow HR leaders outside their organization, executive coaches, and consultants focused on supporting their resilience and effectiveness.
Tips for building agility and connection as a CHRO
Expand your network
Create continuity in succession planning
The new domains of HR: The escalating importance of technology and data
Although the HR leaders we surveyed demonstrated a deep understanding of workforce changes and challenges — an understanding that will be beneficial in navigating future disruptions — they also recognize the need for the HR function to grow its expertise in areas that have traditionally required the expertise of leaders in other domains: technology and data.
CHROs anticipate significant disruption in the future, brought in large part by the proliferation of new technology transforming the nature of work and the function itself. Rapid changes brought by automation and AI have compelled more than half (60%) of the CHROs we surveyed to acknowledge that a more robust command and understanding of technology will become crucial as their role evolves and expands.
How do you see the CHRO/Chief People Officer role changing?
Since HR leaders have not always been optimally positioned to advocate for the technology needs of their function, organization and people, this is quickly becoming a crucial development area. Even though only 17% of CHROs wish they had known more about HR technology when they took on CHRO roles, more than three in four respondents see technology and automation becoming more prevalent in the future. CHROs are recognizing that their teams may not have the requisite skills to lead in this area. Avoiding the trap of under-utilizing technology, which has too often plagued the function and prevented HR from being efficient and innovative (and from removing busy work that can free team members to partner more strategically with the business), will be critical to success. So, too, will be developing the emerging leadership attributes that CHROs will need to respond to significant technological shifts in the world of work and make HR a hub of technology-driven efficiency and innovation — while also being a thought partner in enterprise-wide digitalization initiatives.
When sufficiently versed in technology, CHROs and their teams can play meaningful roles in quantifying the impact of technology on roles and the size and shape of the workforce, preparing the organization for technologydriven change and evolving the culture as new technology plays a prevalent role in the work lives of employees.
With the proliferation of data and the ability of organizations to access analytics that were previously accessible only by the deepest subject matter experts, CHROs also must increasingly leverage data analytics to guide their decision-making, justify funding for their projects, demonstrate their value to their organizations — and even predict what will happen in the future. Building skills in using, interpreting, extrapolating and generating insights from data will be critical for seeing talent patterns and trends, identifying performance drivers and areas for improvement, and making spending decisions that provide the greatest returns. If CHROs are not proficient in analytics, they should seek to develop these skills or focus on building a team with the expertise to unlock the power of data to increase efficiency and productivity and improve how the organization attracts and retains talent.
What’s next for CHROs and their teams? Overcoming today’s challenges to prepare for future changes
Crucial actions for developing more connected and agile HR leaders
- Boost the learning curriculum around non-HR topics, including finance, operations, technology and analytics.
- Increase non-HR skills agility by deploying team members to cross-functional projects.
- Facilitate board exposure for successors; topics including talent, compensation and rewards, and DEI/ESG are particularly relevant here.
- Consider rotations for the highest-potential team members in the revenue-generating parts of the business.
- Create cross-functional cohorts of successors and emerging leaders to build relationships among successors before they reach the C-suite.
- Provide coaching from outgoing CHROs to successors over a three- to six-month period (or longer if possible) if there is a planned transition.
- Develop a short-term (90- or 120-day) success plan that focuses on relationship-building, establishing an HR vision and setting priorities that will demonstrate the value of HR to the organization.
- Assess the skills, effectiveness and reputation of the HR team and identify necessary short- and long-term changes in a formal HR strategy.
- Identify and enroll in formal and informal networks; make HR networking and coaching part of the CHRO’s development plan.
- Establish a team of trusted colleagues inside the organization who will help the CHRO be successful.
- Secure the CEO’s commitment and alignment around the HR strategy, CHRO development, and what success looks like for the leader and the function (ideally, CHROs should focus on development commitments before assuming their role — when they have the most leverage).
- Pay it forward — both within the organization (for successors and emerging leaders) and in the broader HR community when opportunity permits.
- Make HR skill-building a priority, particularly in cross-functional business acumen, technology and analytics.
- Infuse talent from outside the function; consider how non-traditional paths to HR can help augment the organization with knowledge that’s hard to find in the internal and external HR talent pool.
- Carve out a significant role for HR in enterprise-wide digital transformation, AI strategy and data initiatives, demonstrating the value
- HR can provide while giving team members meaningful exposure and experience in these areas.
Key attributes of the successful CHRO
The Five Key Attributes for Successfully Leading the People Function is still essential reading for CHROs, whether newly minted or seasoned veterans. These foundational attributes have stood the test of time, but new skills will be needed as the CHRO role evolves. CHROs can complement those foundational traits by actively cultivating new skills to heighten their impact in the first 100 days and beyond.
Our survey findings point to the evolving role of the CHRO as a futurist — looking to tomorrow and confronting change and disruption with innovation and insight. The majority of CHROs in our survey believe the future of their role demands more strategic management skills and better utilization of analytics and technology, and nearly eight in 10 expect the need to lead more strategically in the face of greater disruption. For top HR leaders, this will translate to confidently predicting the talent and skills needed to move their business forward, identifying the exposure and experiences necessary to nurture and develop that talent, choosing technology that will raise productivity while freeing team members up to focus on more strategic and less operational work, and helping their organizations overcome new challenges as work transforms and the velocity of change increases. In the wake of changes experienced during the past several years — and in anticipation of more changes and challenges ahead — CHROs are left to wonder, am I prepared for these challenges? What am I doing now to address them? And how can I be more effective?
To ensure HR leaders propel — rather than hinder — the transformation efforts underway to help make their organizations more flexible and responsive, the CHRO role and its attendant leadership skills must evolve. Ensuring the right support mechanisms are in place and establishing a network for HR leaders to share best practices — along with giving emerging HR leaders and other high-potential team members exposure to digital transformation and technology innovation — can help HR leaders gain insights into applying technology and other (nonhuman) resources to create positive change, greater flexibility and optimal performance.