Gia Ganesh’s career in HR began in an unlikely place: engineering school.
“I got my degree in engineering, but I always knew that I enjoyed working with people,” said Ganesh, VP of People and Culture at Atlanta-based healthtech company Florence Healthcare.
It may not seem that a background in product engineering lends itself to the work of an HR leader. But, according to Ganesh, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
What Is a CHRO?
“Every role that I’ve had in my life helps me in my role today. My work as a project manager gave me project management skills. When I worked with technical teams, I learned how to manage employee frustrations and understand how people think,” said Ganesh.
The role of an HR leader, much like that of an engineering lead, is about finding strategic solutions to big issues. But instead of coming up with bug fixes and launching products, chief human resource officers are responsible for managing something a little more ambiguous: employee morale. Here’s an overview of what they do and how they build company culture from the ground up.
What Is a CHRO
No matter how good a company’s product is, it won’t succeed without a happy, engaged and empowered team. That’s where a chief human resource officer (sometimes also referred to as chief people officer) steps in. If a company’s head of product delivers results for an external customer base, the CHRO is responsible for supporting a company’s internal clients. Those clients are the employees, said Jennifer Farris.
“If the chief product officer is there to manage the growth and health of the product, the [CHRO] is there to manage the growth and health of the organization,” said Farris, CHRO at San Francisco hiring and employment platform Terminal. “The role is to ensure the biggest investment a company makes — its talent — is managed in the best way possible.”
To give a definition, the CHRO is the representative for a company’s people team at the C-suite level. They’re responsible for setting and executing HR initiatives at the highest level, and they set company-wide goals for recruiting, benefits packages, and performance evaluations. Above all else, they take the wheel when it comes to culture, Ganesh said.
“If the chief product officer is there to manage the growth and health of the product, the [CHRO] is there to manage the growth and health of the organization.”
“Handling and sustaining a growing culture is a key part of the CHRO’s role,” she said. “That is only possible where there’s trust, psychological safety, and inclusivity.”
Since the CHRO is working at the C-suite level, the role inherently requires a lot of collaboration with other executive leaders to set goals and map paths to achieving them. HR budgets can often be the biggest investment a company makes, so CHRO’s need to work closely with chief finance officers to determine how much they can spend on hiring, onboarding, salaries and benefits packages. They also need to align themselves with the CEO and VP to align their decision-making with the company’s overall goals and values.
“A CHRO is somebody who leads the strategic direction for the company from a people and talent perspective,” Ganesh said. “This is a key player in the C-suite that partners closely with the CEO and CFO to determine what the vision for the business is, what the plans are, and how to get there.”
Skills Required for A CHRO Role
Setting the tone for culture at a company, no matter its size, is no easy feat. To prepare for the role, aspiring CHROs should build up their experience in HR. There is no one way to become a CHRO, but a degree in human resource management can give HR hopefuls a big leg up. Organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also offer certification courses that teach skills like strategic communication, business acumen and DEI advancement.
“One skill that is important as a CHRO is being a great storyteller”
“This isn’t something you fall into,” Farris said. “A CHRO, like most executives, needs to come with a depth of experience. I often tell people my superpower is predicting the future, because I have been exposed to patterns of what it takes to grow a company.”
Hard skills like tech savvy, financial know-how, legal competency and time management are crucial for CHROs to know. But in the HR world, soft skills are just as important as hard skills. People leaders need to have strong communication, peer mediation, empathy and listening skills in order to effectively manage and support employees. They also need to be able to craft a vision, and show employees how they fit into it, said Farris.
“One skill that is important as a CHRO is being a great storyteller,” she said. “A former manager and mentor of mine taught me that part of being a great leader is being able to connect people to purpose. You do this not just by making that story compelling, but [by showing] each employee their part in the story.”
Challenges and Rewards
As a company grows and its goals change, its culture will also continuously evolve over time. This is one of the biggest struggle areas a CHRO faces, Farris said.
“There is no real end state. You are never ‘done,’” she said. “You have to remain nimble and flexible, and you have to always be prepared to solve challenging problems.”
Last year, the team at Terminal took major strides in growth, which meant they needed to fill in the gaps in talent to keep up. There was a lot of pressure to hire fast, but Farris wanted to make sure she was hiring the right people. Striking a balance was tough.
“I had to play both the role of the business leader to fill demand for clients, and [was also] the CHRO who ensures the org remains healthy and viable. In the end, we built our own training academy to [give] our own talent with the skills we needed most. This solved our [talent] capacity problem, but also kept the org integrity in check.”
Examples like this one are not uncommon in CHRO roles. Adapting to sudden, high-stakes changes like the one Farris faced can be daunting. They may need to de-escalate conflicts between coworkers, quickly change recruiting strategies if the labor market turns, or overhaul entire HR tech systems in order to upscale. But at the same time, Farris said they’re what keep things exciting.
“There are always interesting and challenging problems to solve,” she said. “People solutions aren’t one size fits all. We need to always be innovating and evolving our approach to ensure solutions we have are scalable, equitable and actually resonate.”
Chief human resource officers have to understand employment law, benefits management, and conflict resolution — but that’s only part of the picture. In a role where people are so central, a good CHRO needs to love people, Ganesh said.
“HR has significantly transformed — it’s not just a compliance and administrative role,” she said. “This role is about setting the right tone for culture, and helping people grow. To do that, you have to have that passion for people.”