university CPO vs HRD GatenbySanderson

University CPO vs HRD

At GatenbySanderson, we are often approached to advise on creating and crafting new roles, especially board-level appointments. A relatively new addition to Executive Leadership Teams in Higher Education institutions is the role of the Chief People Officer (CPO), sometimes called a Chief People and Culture Officer (CPCO).

Juliet Jukes FCIPD, in our Education Practice, has been speaking with university CPO / CPCOs and others involved in the shaping of HE leadership teams to ask why CPO appointments are being introduced and what value these bring.

We are grateful for the insights from Professor John Raftery, Trusted Advisor and Interim Vice Chancellor, Sarah Lal, the inaugural CPCO of the University of Wolverhampton, Rob Baker, Founder & Chief Positive Deviant at Tailored Thinking, Paul Boustead, Phoenix OD & HR Consulting and ex-CPO and previous Chair of Universities HR, and Dan Wood, CPO at the University of the West of England. Here is what they said:

Positioning the university CPO at Board level is critical

All of our contributors agreed that it is absolutely essential this is a Board level appointment so that the role has leverage to shape the workforce, culture and leadership across the organisation. Without this, people issues may be perceived as second value and risk being marginalised.

Commenting on the value she can deliver as a member of the University of Wolverhampton’s Executive Team, Sarah Lal says:

Sarah Lal“…. my presence signals a commitment to prioritising people and colleague development within the University’s overall strategy, which can lead to increased productivity, innovation, psychological safety and long-term sustainable growth.”

The role of the university CPO as a member of the Executive Team was described by many of our commentators as a confidante, coach and support to the VC. Someone who interfaces with the Board and its Chair and acts as a sounding board and good counsel.

All agreed it is vital that Chief People Officers are given a strategic mandate and can build structures that allow them to fulfil this. For example, by building a team around them that delivers an efficient HR service. The relationship and regular dialogue with other Executive colleagues, such as CFO, COO and others is critical, as is the inclusion of the CPO as part of that “team”.

A university CPO is different from a HR Director

A number of our contributors cited the often-used quote:

“Thinking your CPO is an HR person is like thinking your Chief Financial Officer is an accountant. The play in the same space, but the focus is completely different.”[1]

People professionals at this level play a pivotal leadership role. In the context of a university where financial, cultural, mental health and regulatory challenges are prevalent, CPOs occupy a mission-critical role in strategy development, business planning and leading change. Remits vary but can encompass:

  • strategic planning
  • change and transformation programmes
  • EDI
  • systems and people analytics
  • programmes and communications
  • as well as the people profession.

Rob Baker describes the primary mandate of a University CPO as maintaining a visionary perspective by crafting and sustaining a progressive, business-aligned people strategy and horizon-scanning to foresee future challenges and opportunities. He goes onto say that the CPO:

Rob Baker“has to lift the heads and ambitions of others throughout the university, starting with the executive leadership team”. This “heads up” way of working is distinct from the traditional HRD’s “head down” approach and is a useful starting point when considering whether to create a CPO.”

But as Rob goes on to note, it’s crucial not to fixate solely on titles:

“The effectiveness of these leadership roles hinges more on the individuals who inhabit them than the titles themselves. Some HR Directors I’ve worked and collaborated with have a profoundly strategic and transformative capacity, while I’ve seen others with the CPO title take a more functional approach.”

The relationship between a CPO and their HRD is key

Often a CPO works with an HR Director who is responsible for the functional leadership of HR and who is focused on the implementation of strategies, systems, processes, and initiatives that facilitate and bolster the broader institutional agenda.

Having both a CPO and an HRD will help the CPO to occupy a strategic place and safeguard them from being drawn into operational delivery. The strategic priority rightly placed by organisation in relation to EDI, Culture and organisational effectiveness requires the CPO to have a broad skill set and knowledge base.

It also provides for a different kind of thinking, as Dan Wood, CPO at the University of the West of England explains:

Dan Wood“The CPO’s role is to shape and engage people with the people strategy and story and to enable and influence strategic transformation and operational excellence while positioning the HR capabilities and services to help realise the strategy. CPOs must encourage staff to learn and feel valued, engaged, and motivated while contributing their best to improve organisational culture and performance. The HRD’s job focuses on  leading the delivery of great HR processes, experiences and services which are effective and efficient and underpinned by data insight and the best of technology.”

With the role of the HRD and the CPO being so closely intertwined, there must be really clear role responsibility and ongoing dialogue. Dan comments that a technically strong HR Director allows a CPO, who retains overall accountability for the HR function, to extend their remit to cover EDI, Communications and Change Projects & Programmes and bring a people-lens to the leadership of the organisation.

Universities with a particular need for creating a CPO role can bring real benefits to a university

In universities, there is a particular imperative for a CPO / CPCO role, as John Raftery explains:

Professor John Raftery“The most important resource in a university is its intellectual capital in the form of its staff community. High performing, focused, contented staff are an underlying cause which move universities into achieving enduring improvements in ‘organizational symptoms’, i.e. their benchmarked metrics.  Forward thinking universities are developing their HR efforts well beyond process.  A CPCO can open the way to improving the organizational ‘vital signs’ -such as minimized bureaucracy and healthy collaborative culture- which are necessary to achieve sustained improvement in organizational performance or ‘symptoms’ like benchmarked metrics of educational and financial resilience.”

Commentators were split on commerciality, with a number saying that this was a key driver in the decision to introduce a CPO. Others took a more nuanced view, saying that the CPO could find numerous ways to enable universities to deliver teaching and education and conduct research, for example by identifying what talent strategies and employment models are needed to underpin this. However, it was clear from all our conversations that the CPO is expected to contribute solutions to the full spectrum of issues facing universities ranging from the attainment gap, mental health, and the financial deficit – and it is this breadth which necessitates a shift in approach from project-based interventions to thinking about organisational culture as a living, breathing thing which grows and changes. The CPO role is integral to this shift in thinking. As John Raftery concludes:

“CPOs are oriented more towards the future (than ‘the present’ world of the HRD). They can help University Boards and VCs to have their most important resource, their people, well prepared and in the best possible condition to maximise opportunities (or defensive strength) responding to the rapidly changing environment facing UK Higher Education as we enter 2024.”

In our work with universities, we are seeing a greater focus on People, Culture and Environment, reflected in proposed changes to the Research Excellence Framework. The role of the CPO is indicative of a more holistic approach to creating a culture that enables people to do their best work, The work of HR Departments is changing and so is the nomenclature, but the CPO role is significantly different from what has gone before and as our commentators here share, the role needs to be appropriately positioned and supported for it to be a true strategic lever.

If you are considering introducing a CPO role to deliver institution-wide change, or if you are a People professional seeking your next appointment, please get in touch with Juliet Jukes to start the conversation.



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