Why I chose the Title of Chief People Officer.

The title Chief People Officer has been around for a while. Still, many people ask me why I chose that title. Here’s my answer.
Chief People Officer


I am convinced that “people” is a better word to use. The term HR comes from a period that the function formerly known as personnel management (FFKAPM) was looking for street credibility. In contrast to capital resources, human resources were the focus of a function that wanted to escape the hell of employee administration. The personnel people wanted to conquer a place at the board table. HR was to be more strategic, more linked to the business and more focused on processes that create added value for the company. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
For many people working in this line of business, the quest for recognition and impact still goes on. Indeed, in many organisations the FFKAPM is still struggling with the question on how to position itself. But to me that question is irrelevant for various reasons. The most important reason is that the FFKAPM is not a function. It’s a process, distributed across the entire organization. It’s executed by distributed leaders. HR people who think they are actually doing HR should rethink.

People versus Human Resources

The term People covers the essence of the debate better. Here is why:

  • HR could suggest that there is a certain sense of ownership. However, attracting and retaining people is an intensive process without any guarantee on return. The discretionary power lies with the so-called resources, not with the investor. Investing in capital resources is relative predictable. The investment in people is a very uncertain one. You might send people to a training, after which they might leave. So you need to accept a high degree of uncertainty or risk. You can limit this risk through a proactive people strategy.
  • The term HR may refer to the existence of active components like productivity and competencies. But you cannot separate the useful human traits from the ones that are less useful. A person is indivisible. People come with the diversity that is so characteristic to people. Organisations have to take everything that comes along with that person, the aspirations the talent, the worries, the weaknesses, … The answer to this issue is probably selection. However, we tend to overdefine hiring profiles and miss out on a lot of potential. Companies that look beyond narrow people profiles have access to much more diversity and people potential.
  • The term HR may hint at depletion. A person is only a resource as far as the person has the necessary competencies, engagement, health, availability. The sustainability of employability is not the responsibility of the user of the resources but of the carrier. In an age where people are increasingly suffering from stress and burnout we can no longer use the word HR to refer to people. People who experience ups and downs in the course of their lives are less employable and therefore disposable? Sustainable employability is a joint responsibility of people and organisations. As we know that a high proportion of the population will suffer an impairing disease, we must make sure that we take the necessary measures to avoid, limit or solve the risks and their consequences. This has both a moral and an economic part. And even when organisations and individuals work on this, chances are still high that impairment will occur at a given moment.
  • The term HR might refer to the interchangeable nature of the resources. Indeed. Capital resources are usually interchangeable. People are not. Yes, not every person that leaves the company has critical and rare skills. Yes, through succession planning and training you can limit possible negative consequences of exits. But a person that exits are enters a team, changes that team. Therefore the interchangeability is limited.
  • The term HR sounds very rational. But people are not only rational. (cfr. Blog on emotions). The irrational side of human behavior has been demonstrated on many occasions. Scientific management wanted to eradicate irrational behavior and focused on efficiency and effectiveness. But the logical approach to management has dehumanized work.

On the importance of People in Business

The importance of people in business is high. That’s at least a euphemism.

  • Leadership (also a human behavior) creates a context, including the strategy, that defines business and personal success.
  • Strategy execution depends on the commitment of people. We cannot limit strategy execution to top-down alignment. Execution depends on people doing what they said they would do. It requires people to adapt to changing circumstances, to take initiative, to think, …
  • Customers experience the brand through the behaviour of people. If you go into a shop you can literally feel the brand. And if you don’t something is wrong.
  • In many areas due to the demographic shift people practices will need to change, either by hiring atypical profiles or by keeping people in the work process at a higher age. Having people of different ages at the same time on the work floor might need a change of coöperation (to be honest, I do not buy into the generational debate. Age is a source of diversity like gender, ethnic origin, cultural heritage, ideas and opinions).
  • Intangible organisational traits such as trust, culture, sense of meaning, … make or break any strategy. Like someone has put it: culture eats strategy for breakfast. We cannot see culture, but we can feel it. It’s around us. It’s like the water in the fish bowl.
  • Many mergers fail because of culture. Culture is a result of the behaviour and interactions of people. The destruction of value due to the incompatibility of organizational cultures is phenomenal.
  • Business success depends on coöperation, creativity, engagement. Business leaders should create environments that foster these human behaviours. For that they need to understand their dynamics.
  • In times of speed it’s the people that will determine your company’s time to market, its agility.


Is this a soft approach? I do not think so. Companies need to create value. People create value. And the creation of value is needed to attract and keep the right people. Both go hand in hand. As Chief People Officer I focus on that value creation and the development of a strong people capability. More than any other capability, the capability to make people thrive and excel determines a company’s competitive advantage. And that’s not soft. It’s pure business logic. It’s like putting the “salary mass” into a source of progress and prosperity.
And that’s why I chose the title. It expresses the strategic intent of the FFKAPM better than CHRO.
This video illustrates it:


HR strategy: Control + Alt + HR function ?

snale - HR Strategy

HR strategy, the discussion.

I’ve been in HR now for more than 15 years. In all these years the “strategic” role of HR has not been out of the debate.
Through the years I’ve noticed that this strategic role is complex and intangible. I will not try to define and describe the word strategic in this blog. You could check other literature for that. I am looking for what defines the strategic role. And I would like to answer the question how HR could become more strategic in the future.  I am aware it’s not perceived as strategic today.

The management team

There’s a perception that being a part of the management team is the most important indicator for the strategic nature of an HR manager. Only when you’re on the team, you are strategic.
But this is nothing more than a perception. I’ve known HR managers who are member of that team but who were not strategic at all and vice versa. So it’s not that. So it’s not team membership. Could the strategic role depend on the person?

The person

If an HR manager is not perceived as being strategic, surely it’s due to his or her own behaviour. There is one key question. Does the HR Manager have enough power to influence the strategic decision-making ?
Being able to influence is always an advantage. Sometimes it might be necessary. But it’s absurd to limit the strategic power of the HR function to the personal impact of the HR Manager.
So it’s not team membership or the HR Manager’s behaviour. What then is the determining factor for  HR to become strategic?

The functions and roles

Dave Ulrich has introduced one of the most influential models in HR. He clearly described 4 roles for HR. HR was to become next to the administrative expert also a champion for the employees, a change agent, and a strategic partner.

The 4 HR roles, inclusive the HR strategy role.
Dave Ulrich’s model of HR

This offered a framework that helped HR departments to develop into what they are  now. Various people fulfill the different roles within the department. Those people need to collaborate with one another and with the internal client.
The focus on the internal client cleared the way for the HR business partner. This is a generalist who functions as a single point of contact for the internal clients. This function also integrates a change driving and strategic dimension.
So here we were and are.
HR finally became a full function, covering the four roles. And the people in  HR departments started integrating the strategic dimension in their roles. The strategic HR role was born.
Was it ?
If all of this were true, why hasn’t the discussion about the strategic role of HR not stopped? Why have certain HR functions dramatically felt the crisis? Why have they been hit by serious cost cutting? Why was HR unable to turn the continuous “noise” about its HR strategy into satisfaction ?
Could it be that we have forgotten the people?

The people

Employees and their managers do not benefit a lot from the fact that the HR function is strategically positioned. That’s because there’s a long way between the definition of a strategy and the experience in the field.
Suppose your manager:

  • is a member of the management team.
  • supports and communicates the HR decisions to the own department.
  • is actively participating in the HR decision-making process.
  • has the active support of an HR business partner.

Then chances are that

  • the implementation of the HR strategy will go ahead smoothly
  • you will effectively feel “something” of what the HR strategy is all about.

But even then. Interpretations, convictions, emotions and misunderstandings about roles and responsibilities between the business and HR could spoil the party.
Should we conclude that an HR department can be as strategic as it wants, but that at the end of the day it’s the people who mess up ?
Absolutely not.
If people perceive the collaboration between HR and their department negatively, there is a problem. People do not experience the  HR strategy as intended. In that case HR has seriously messed up.
HR and the company face a huge challenge here. An HR strategy can only be successful if there’s a good collaboration between HR and the line managers. And I’d take it a step further. The line manager should become the real owner and executor of the HR strategy in his/her department. The HR business partner can give support and not drive the HR agenda. It’s about coaching business people towards HR (strategic) decisions. The HRBP should not take this decision him/herself.

The people processes

So the line manager is responsible for HR. And the HR business partner has a supporting and coaching role. We cannot expect our line manager to set up a “mini HR team”. That would not work. That would only lead to ineffective fragmentation of the HR function.
But line managers manage a lot of processes. So they can also manage HR-processes if they’re supported by experts and coaches. Some examples are:

  • Recruitment
  • Performance management
  • Outflow of weak performers
  • People Development
  • Team building

Let me introduce a new process the business could perfectly drive: the HR strategy process.

Control + Alt + HR function

HR Strategy is about the continuous improvement of people processes. It’s driven by the business. HR is no longer a function. It’s a process, driven by the business.
How do we have to understand these processes?
Some examples. Improvement of:

  • Hiring. How and where to attract our future talents ? Business people  know the market better than HR people.
  • Talent acquisition and development processes. Which competencies will we need within 5 to 10 years? Business people  know the future needs of the customers better than HR people.
  • Industrial relations. How can we convince the unions better than by telling them how the business is working ?
  • Internal communication. How can we integrate social media in the existing employee communication platforms?
  • Retention. How can we use the output of exit interviews more appropriately?
  • Team building and collaboration. How can we better deal with conflicts in our teams?
  • Leadership development. How will our own leadership have to evolve if we want to stay successful ?

Imagine managers becoming responsible for driving and managing these people processes. They are not only responsible for driving existing people processes but also for co-creating new ones. Of course, they are supported by colleagues and HR.
Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 20.13.24
I think these managers will be much more willing and able to:

  • see the HR strategy as their HR strategy
  • make it much more concrete for their people.
  • transform employee’s negative perceptions about HR into transparent understanding of it.

That is the real meaning of strategic HR.
Read also:

Family and work: 4 ways to improve family life at work

Family and work

Family and work seem to be in conflict. Family is one of the main sources of happiness and fulfilment. When looking back at their life, dying people often state that they regret not having spent enough time with family and friends and to have worked too much. Indeed, there is a friction between work and other roles as time is limited. People have to divide time across the different roles like work, family, volunteering, friends, hobbies. And of course there are some tendencies that seem to portray work as a role that prohibits people from taking on other valuable life roles.

  • There is more choice than ever. People have increased activities outside of work.This leads to fragmentation of life, with work becoming one fragment.
  • Work has become more intensive, and the barriers between work and private life have faded.
  • Family life has become more complicated. The rate of divorce and newly composed families has increased.
  • Dual career families face challenges to cope with the caring role
  • As life expectancy has increased, employees see themselves faced with having to care for both children and parents.

Helping People to lead their Life

Not so long ago, companies thought that it was right for employees to leave their family business behind when entering the gates of the company. People came to work and companies were only interested in the active components of the employee. These were competencies, engagement and productivity. It’s clear that the emotional state of mind of employees influence these active components. Family life plays an important role in that emotional state. So this is why companies should be interested in family. Even more. Companies should actively look for ways to help people to lead their lives. Including their family life.
There are 4 ways to do that:

    1. Accomodation

Provide accommodation that alleviates some of the worries people have. This may include child care, health services, extra child allowances, … Accommodation makes live more easy and are binding. Unfortunately these forms of accommodation are usually not related to the work itself and does not solve the problem of alienation.

    1. Flexibilise Work

Change the organisation of work. By providing work flexibility a company can help people to combine family and work life. Flexible hours or telework are common ways to help people to allocate time to the family role. Flexible work patterns change the very organisation of work, but do not change the work content or the friction between work and family itself. At best, this approach makes it easier. It accommodates.

    1. Results-Only-Work Environments: ROWE

Giving responsibility to people in the execution of their work, by not focussing on time and place of work, give people the feeling of ownership. They become entrepreneurs and the work becomes more interesting. People are free to decide what, when and how much work is done as long as contractual expectations have been met. The focus here lies on getting the results. This is based on trust. The disadvantage of this approach is that people risk to work too much and neglect their family. The main difference is that they will feel responsible for it and not blame their employer. This sounds a little manipulative, and that’s why employers who introduce these cultural changes, should address the need to spend enough time outside of work. To many employers this turns to to be a dilemma, or a conflict of interest. An employer has an interest in keeping employees at work as long as possible. But here’s a question. Is this sustainable?

    1. Balanced-Results-Oriented-Work-Environments : BROWE

The paradox of success is that people who overinvest in work are likely to end up in trouble. This is divorce, loss of contact with their children and end up regretting this at the end of their life. So instead of talking about ROWE (Results-only work environments), we should talk about BROWE. Balanced results oriented Work environments. Balanced, because there is a keen focus on keeping a balance between work and other life roles. And I prefer results-oriented rather than results-only because work is more than getting results. I dread the word results only because this creates an environment that has no mercy or kindness. Results are important, but also the way you get results is important. So there’s a big need for balancing. An employer cannot forget his responsibility in this. He should nudge people towards that balance.

BROWE as preferred model of employer support for family life

Accommodation is in itself OK. It’s a start to become more family friendly. But a company can go further. Let’s not think that individualizing work will do the trick. ROWE is a progress but entails a risk. An employer should help people to keep balance. This will add to the sustainability of work. This will lead to sustainable employability. More than accommodation, BROWE will give people the experience that the company cares about its employees. And that it is willing to help them to find balance in their lives.
See also : Leslie A. Perlow & Erin L. Kelly. Toward a Model of Work Redesign for Better Work and Better Life. Work and Occupations February 2014, vol. 41 no. 1 111-134. This article compares accommodation with work flexibility arrangements and ROWE. I believe we should take it a step further and introduce BROWE.

The 5 future roles of HR


HR is under pressure. Most HR-managers feel this. Budgets are cut and processes are criticized. HR needs to reinvent itself. It needs to find ways to shape its own future. In the past we have lamented about the lack of strategic “weight” within the company. I have worked for 2 decades in HR and I was always puzzled by this. Lamentation is never the right option. We need to do things. And we can only gain influence by doing well the things we are doing. But were we any good? Let’s face some brutal facts.

  • According to a Gallup Survey, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged. They are outnumbered by the actively disengaged employees.
  • 20% of workers in Europe report a poor mental well-being (5th European Working Conditions Survey). In Belgium half of the employees experience a too high mental workload (Securex Whitepaper) –
  • The ILO world of work 2013 survey reports a degradation of job quality between 2007-2011. The change of Job quality is determined by the change in the percentage of temporary employees, the change in social benefits expenditure as share of total public expenditure and the growth in the average hourly wages between 2007 and 2011 were used.
  • Long-term absenteeism is on the rise according to a Securex Research and the increase of long-term absenteeism is accelerating.
  • Research on Karaseks Job quality model, consistently report low figures.

And I could go on. Of course, HR professionals should not take the blame. But still, these facts have to make us think about our own profession.

Wasted time

And the question is how we can do better. This situation has been predicted 4 decades ago by Alvin Toffler in his monumental book “Futureshock“. We are now where he predicted us we would be. McGregor has defined in the 60ies human-centric style of leadership and organisation in “the Human Side of Enterprise” and Shumacher pleaded for economics as if people mattered in his book “Small is Beautiful“. These and other books from the past, have predicted our present and future state.
It seems we have been wasting 4 decades to find ourselves in a difficult situation. So it’s time to act. If people in HR really want, they can shape their own future.

The Future

Thinking about the future of how employers will manage the employees should make us humble. Indeed we know the past and the present, but are ignorant about the future. There are two answers to the question about that future. We can think about the future content: what will be the tasks? And we can think about the process: what will be our role?
The first question is in my opinion not the most important one. To answer it you can review many surveus that have asked the question. A research by Boston Consulting Group revealed 6 tasks for the future:

  • Managing Talent: assessing quantitative and qualitative needs for talent, managing the talent pipe-line.
  • Managing Demographics: managing the loss of capacity and knowledge, managing the ageing workforce
  • Becoming a learning organisation: choosing a learning strategy, boosting the number of on-the-job development programs, measuring the return on investment.
  • Managing work-life balance: determining what people need, building programs that afford flexible working hours, enhancing corporate social responsibility
  • Managing Change and cultural transformation: determining and shaping desired behaviours, ensuring top-management support.
  • Getting the fundamentals right: mastering people processes, delivering on recruiting and staffing, transforming HR into a strategic partner.

The second question is much more interesting and challenges us more. What role can HR play in organisations? I see 5 determining roles for HR in the future.

Role 1: The Architect

HR no longer owns the people processes. Instead, HR becomes a facilitator or even an architect. By creating the right context in which people can be successful, HR will deliver its greatest contribution. In that sense HR is working on culture, organisation, processes and environment. The processes are not HR’s, they belong to the company. Let’s also not ignore the CEO’s increasing interest in people, leadership and culture. The CEO (or the board) is the owner of people processes. HR takes on the role of architect. HR will create organisations in which leadership, cooperation, innovation, entrepreneurship, … can develop.

Role 2: The Artisanal and Digital Expert

But to be able to take on the role of architect, HR needs know-how. In the recent past HR became a generalist, but in future we will become experts, or craftsmen. Instead of being a generalist, HR will offer top-notch expertise about the people side of the company. Apart from the more traditional, artisanal know-how, HR will have to master the digital know-how: Social Media, HRIS, Employee Self Service, … HR will need to incorporate knowledge and practices from other disciplines into its own discipline: marketing, finance, service management, … Learning from others is a great opportunity for HR.

Role 3: The Coach

But HR should be aware of reification of people. In the quest for a spot at the board table we might have lost the contact to people. HR needs to be(come) more empathic. Empathy means to listen, try to understand and act upon that understanding. And why should HR not introduce kindness, compassion and humanity into the corporate DNA? It’s like we need to rediscover the human being behind the employee ID again. This is not an appeal for meaningless softness. Business needs to be human in order to help people to be successful. HR becomes a coach of the organisation, its management and its employees. In the future it will be the employee that will determine and evaluate a company’s people strategy. Coaching is a way of individualization of the people strategy.

Role 4: The Data-Strategist

Like any other discipline, HR is oriented towards results. HR will work on becoming evidence-based. That entails not only looking for data to assess HR interventions, but also planning interventions based on available scientific insights. There is not much big data in HR today. However, by analyzing the data we have, we might be able to shape the future of our profession.

Role 5: The advocate

HR leaves the backbench and becomes an advocate of the importance of people processes and results. The people strategy is a part of the company strategy. HR people are gaining influence through their know-how, there fact-based approach and their proactive contribution to the business results. Any business decision has an impact on people and any business strategy depends on the quality of the people who execute it.


If HR is able to design organisations, based on its profound knowledge of human behaviour, with the necessary coaching presence it has a bright future. We need to take on 5 roles, all at once. When I presented this to a group of HR professionals, it was clear that the role of coach and expert were seen as the most important and developed roles. This is good starting point for any profession. But HR can expand its influence by trying to look for evidence. And this evidence can be used to build an HR strategy through which HR can become the advocate and the architect of the people side of business. When we can do this, there will be no lamentation needed.
Future roles of HR

Related Blogs

This blog post is based on a presentation I have done for the Antwerp Management School. The Slides (in Dutch) are available here:

The "h" in HR stands for humble

In the two decades that I have been working in HR, I have heard HR professionals regret the limited influence HR has. They often lament the absence of an HR-seat at the board table or the lack of advocacy. I have never understood this lamentation. For me HR is not a function and it’s not a matter of holding a position at a certain level. HR is a process, not a function. In principle you do not need a separate HR-function to make sure that the management of people within companies is well done.
Many people do realise that it’s the human factor that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity, success and failure. But a company does not need a savvy HR director to put this point on the agenda of the company. In smaller companies there is no HR-function and the task is done by the owner of the company. Of course this is not a guarantee for success, just as much as having an HR-function within a company does not automatically leads to success.
It all depends on the vision of a company about the role of their people and the way this vision is implemented in day-to-day practices within a company. The link between HR and the corporate strategy is made through the creation of a leadership brand. The title of this blog could suggest that I underestimate the value of HR. I don’t think so. HR plays a fundamental role in the success of a company. The focus of HR should not be HR in itself, but rather the success of employees, managers and of the company as a whole. The success of HR is the success of the company and vice versa. Humility in combination with this focus on success is key.
* someone asked if having humble resources is a good thing. Of course I refer to the people holding an HR-function being humble.