Chief people officer: The worst best job in tech
The CPO is a coveted role at morale-focused tech companies. But being responsible for a staff, a culture and often a whole lot more can be nerve-wracking, sometimes prompting quick exits
Google announced this past week that Eileen Naughton, its vice president of people operations, would step down later this year. While the company veteran said in a statement she was vacating the role to be closer to family in New York, and would take another unspecified position eventually, Naughton’s planned departure comes as Google faces the greatest challenges within its workplace culture since its founding in 1998. It also comes amid growing pressure on Silicon Valley’s high-level HR pros and people officers, who occupy roles that are coveted, complicated, fast-evolving and sometimes short-lived.
Describing herself on LinkedIn, Naughton said she likes to “grow things and make things more beautiful.” But during her three-and-a-half-year stint heading people operations, employees protested several of the company’s actions, including artificial intelligence-related work with the Pentagon and a secret project to develop a censored version of the company’s search engine for China. In November 2018, most notably, nearly 20,000 employees walked out of their offices around the world to protest management’s internal handling of sexual harassment allegations.
“I don’t know Naughton, but under the circumstances you could have put anyone in that role, and I can’t imagine they would have succeeded,” said Susan Etlinger, an analyst for The Altimeter Group, a research and advisory firm, and a senior fellow of global policy at the Canada-based Centre for International Governance Innovation. “In this case, I think it was a ‘no-win’ situation, simply because there was an unprecedented combination of issues that hit so close together and that brought the company’s values into the light. And I don’t think anyone was — or would have been — completely prepared for that.”
The challenges of being a CEO are well-documented, particularly if you’re a founder with little to no experience running a company. But executives in the role of another C-suite position — the increasingly popular chief people officer role — often find the job equally stressful, recruiters and executives said. That is in part because the roles are broader than more traditional HR positions, because CPOs often lack the general management training to navigate these newer roles, and due to the relatively thankless nature of the job. CPOs frequently last one to two years, a dozen recruiters and past and present CPOs told Protocol.
“Even though you’re surrounded by people, and you’re talking all day long, being CPO is often said to be the loneliest role outside of the CEO role, because you don’t have somebody to confide in necessarily for everything,” said Jessica Yuen, former CPO of the New York-based software company Couchbase.
Company culture guard
Over the last three to five years, the chief people officer role — a title that may be interchangeable with chief human resources officer or vice president of people, depending on the employer — has become a coveted job at tech companies, the highest rung of the human resources ladder. The person is responsible not only for a staff but a culture: the company’s values, ethics and mission, and how it creates an environment in which employees can thrive amid growth, sometimes from small startup to a publicly traded company with thousands of employees sprawled across the world.
Diverging from some traditional and administrative HR roles, the chief people officer is expected to be more strategic, working on initiatives that include organizational design and far-reaching learning and development programs. A CPO may also serve as an executive coach for the rest of the C-suite, fine-tuning management skills with analysis and feedback.
“There’s been a fundamental paradigm shift more recently in the way businesses see people,” said John Foster, CPO for car buying site TrueCar. “Traditional HR heads may see people more as costs, and they’re trying to avoid risk, manage costs and keep them down. I think in a more modern, growth-oriented, consumer-driven company, a CPO is thinking more about people as investments. So you [as CPO] are trying to help people do more, increase ‘engagement’ [with their job and the company] and deliver their best efforts through discretionary efforts versus forced mandates. Whereas, in a traditional role, you’re just trying to get people to comply.”
The stakes are high for CPOs: According to former LinkedIn Chief Human Resources Officer Pat Wadors, who is now chief talent officer at ServiceNow, 80% of a company’s operating expenses are typically talent-related. And CPOs have sway and influence beyond the HR team, including finance, marketing and communications.
“There’s no part of the company you’re not having some input on to do this role effectively, and besides the CEO, I can’t truly think of another role that really does that,” said Michael Case, CEO of Neptune People, an executive search firm focused on startups in their series A to series D stages. “There’s a finance element: You’re controlling budgets, you’re controlling marketing, internal, external, technology deployment, internal communications. You’re probably running the all-hands [meetings] for the CEO.”
Foster recalled that when he first joined TrueCar in April 2019, he essentially led employee communications.
“I spent most of my time going around to the different business leaders and asking them what they thought our business was, and sort of trying to get them to define our business in a small number of statements, and what I found was there were competing and different views of what we did,” he said. “One part of the business thought we were all about selling [car] leads to dealers; another part of the business thought that we’re all about creating a great consumer experience, making car-buying easier, and so it goes around to like three or four different stories. I took that back to our CEO and said, ‘Hey, we don’t have alignment. We can’t go hire executives for this company if we can’t actually tell them what we’re doing.'”
Working with then-CEO Chip Perry, Foster said he helped hammer out a more-focused mission statement and messaging for the company, in part so management could more effectively communicate with employees.
Stress by the bottle
According to Radford Data and Option Driver, firms focused on employee compensation, CPOs may earn between $275,000 and $400,000 at large or publicly traded companies. But the rush in recent years for tech companies to bring a CPO aboard at earlier stages — startups as small as 50 people, at times — has created a market of high demand and low supply for extremely qualified candidates, recruiters said.
Some hires may as a result be under-qualified and suffer from the weight of a number of challenges, including impostor syndrome, hard-to-fulfill quarterly and annual job goals, and emotional burdens caused by office conflicts that prove too difficult to bear. Case, who has interviewed hundreds of CPO candidates over the years, said he has become a sort of unofficial therapist for the talent he helps place at companies.
“Some people talk to me, sometimes crying and saying, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m doing a good job,'” he said. “‘I’m working all the time. I’m doing my best, but it doesn’t ever seem to be good enough for the CEO or for the employees.'”
At one panel at a Redpoint Ventures event at the firm’s San Francisco office in 2019, one HR executive onstage summed up their daily stress level by saying, “I have to decide if today’s a one wine or two wine day,” according to a source who was there and did not want to be identified. “And they weren’t referring to a glass — they were referring to a bottle.”
While the CEO receives external recognition when a company does something right — the successful launch of a new product, better-than-expected financial results — being CPO can be relatively thankless. Instead, CPOs find gratification in smaller moments, such as mentoring an employee or member of their team. But when things go awry culturally, the CPO may gain attention. “If you fail, if you make a mistake, you can impact every employee and they can have their pitchforks out,” Case said. “They blame HR — they don’t blame the CEO.”
Matt Hoffman, a partner and head of talent at the venture capital firm M13, which invests in and advises high-growth startups, has observed high stress among some CPOs struggling to hit goals that aren’t as concrete as those in other roles. A recruiter may face a quarterly goal of hiring a certain number of engineers. For a CPO, the goals may be more complex and interwoven into a company’s performance.
CPOs often explore “regret” attrition rates in a bid to decrease the number of employees seen as assets who depart the company. To do that, the CPO may examine why a departed employee was hired in the first place, the dynamics that emerged with their manager, and whether any events inside the company during the employee’s final months directly contributed to dissatisfaction. The CPO is expected to offer solutions to management, which could include new programs to help employees feel more engaged or feedback to managers. By comparison, a traditional HR chief may only initiate such investigations if an employee’s departure is particularly controversial.
“You are doing so much and you’re carrying this emotional weight and psychological burden,” Hoffman said. “I think there’s an added layer of stress in this role, because we’re traditionally — at least if we’re good at our job — naturally empathetic, and so we kind of feel and carry the burden of everyone else’s stress. We feel responsible for finding ways to alleviate that when there may not be the structural condition present.”
‘Maybe we’re masochists’
The CPO role tends to attract a certain type of personality: high performers with emotional intelligence or “EQ” — the better to empathize with employees and their issues, sometimes to their own detriment. It is the executive role most likely to be held by a woman. A recent analysis by research firm Equilar Inc. for The Wall Street Journal report found that while more women are now in C-suites, they frequently hold roles in areas including human resources, legal and administration — positions that rarely offer a direct path to becoming CEO.
“It can be tricky, but it can be rewarding, too,” said Cindy Gordon, chief people officer at insurance company PolicyGenius in New York City. “Maybe we’re masochists, but I don’t look at it that way. But we do need to understand the needs of people and the needs of the business.”
Being CPO often means dealing with executives and managers outside HR who may view the person as overstepping. At one e-commerce startup where he briefly served as acting CPO, Foster said he butted heads with the company’s CEO, who heeded his advice on more-traditional HR matters but not other issues. That included diversifying the startup’s all-male C-suite — an issue, in part, because the startup’s executive bench lacked gender diversity, but also because its audience was predominantly female. When the time came to hire a chief marketing officer, Foster said he strongly suggested the company seek talented female candidates.
“On the executive team, I felt that we didn’t have enough representation of our true consumer, which was, for the most part, an upper middle class female homemaker, and our executive team was all men,” said Foster, who declined to identify the startup. “And I was making a strong case for us to get a chief marketing officer who was really savvy, understood women and would build empathy for the company. [The CEO’s] thought was that we should get an analytical CMO who is really good at modern digital marketing and would be really good at using modern tools to just find growth using math. I pretty much ended up quitting the company over the argument.”
While acknowledging the unique challenges of the job, Beth Steinberg, vice president of people and talent for financial services startup Chime, said the role can be deeply rewarding — provided you find the right CEO and company to work for.
“You don’t have direct control over a lot of things and so, I, for example, see things that I believe are issues, and I [do] not always have the ability to fix those myself,” she said. “But I have also been very lucky that I have worked for some great business leaders who also saw the value of this role. Not everybody has been that lucky.”