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By Alyson Nyiri

In his new book, Les Dakens writes about his experience as a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), and provides a career development plan for HR professionals looking to reach the top spot in the C-Suite. In a recent interview, Dakens shared what he has learned as a CHRO.

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

LD: Taking on the Maple Leaf Foods job re-invigorated my interest in the role of the CHRO. This book would help me as a teaching aid that I could give to people I am coaching and to my fellow board members on the HR committee to show how we leverage the CHRO. I also wanted to introduce many other voices that could tell the story of the CHRO.

The designation of CHRO is the next generation of HR executives. What role does the CHRO play in the organization?

LD: The CHRO, first and foremost, is directly accountable to the CEO. It’s an evolving role, and at the heart of it you are both the individual coach to the C-suite and below, including the CEO, plus you are the team coach. As the head of HR, you hire these people. You develop them, promote them and support them as they execute their jobs. The bottom line is because you are at the front end of the hiring, you’re also accountable for making sure they perform effectively. You need to develop them for future assignments and you need to coach them in terms of how they operate, not just within their own teams but how they operate within the executive team. The CEO must be totally aligned with you in terms of what you want to get done with the team. Most importantly, the CHRO is the architect of an organization’s talent strategy. Where HR may have been let go when a strike hit the plant, today’s HR strategists will find themselves out of a job if they cannot execute a well-defined people strategy.

You include a chapter on plant-level HR management. What are some of the specific skills HR professionals need to be effective at this level?

LD: In a manufacturing company, there are two functions that really matter in terms of making money on a sustainable basis: making the product and selling it. In HR, you have to understand those two functions to understand how the business makes money. In a labour-intensive manufacturing setting, most of the employees are in the plants and quite often unionized. If you are successful in that environment, you will be successful anywhere because you are dealing with the essence of the business. It’s the same case if you are supporting the sales and marketing function. You understand the business and know what it takes to be successful in those roles. You also need to know how to find and develop the right people so that every day in manufacturing, they can put out a high quality, safe and cost effective product, or similarly if you are selling a product. Getting that experience early on in a career helps balance technical knowledge of HR with strong business acumen. That’s been the biggest gap in HR. We are all technical experts but we don’t always have the business acumen to the level we need. You can fix that by taking an operating assignment.

The next generation CEO will lead differently. What are the differences?

LD: The next generation of CEO has had more personal development and is more sensitive to talent development, succession planning and career planning than the previous generation, who came up the ranks not necessarily having a well-planned out game plan. Many CEOs were selected early in their careers as high potentials and they’ve had special development. They get it. This means that the CHRO will have an ally right from the start. Secondly, orientation around development has a larger focus on people than in the past. CEOs will be more interested in turning to their CHRO and saying, “Here is our business strategy; what is your people strategy to support this?”

How can the CHRO be a strong strategic partner and confidante to the CEO?

LD: The strategic partner and confidante are two distinct roles. Some CHROs are successful at both; others pick one. The best way for the CHRO to be the strategic partner to the CEO is to have strong business acumen and make the direct link between business strategy for the company and the people strategy that helps the CEO execute the business strategy. It used to be that the only time you were fired as the head of HR is if you ended up in a strike that you didn’t want. Now, the biggest reason a CHRO would be fired is if they did not have a people strategy to help the CEO execute the business strategy.

The confidante role is related, but independent in terms of skills required. The confidante is part psychologist, part listener and part nurturing parent. The confidante is there to listen, but there are times when they have to be the one to “kick the CEO in the butt” – you have to have the courage to do this, and there may be times when you cross the line and it’s irreparable to the relationship. It’s a fine line to challenge your boss. Most CEOs appreciate the honest feedback, but some do not.

What are your predictions for the CHRO role in next five years?

LD: I see a formal acknowledgement that the CHRO will report dually to the head of the HR committee on the board of directors and the CEO. The CHRO will be regarded as the people expert when it comes to executing the business strategy of the company. If the company doesn’t successfully implement their strategy by the time that the three- to five-year period is over, the CHRO needs to be held just as accountable as the CEO.

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