Chief People Officer Forum | Making People a Priority

Chief People Officer Forum | Making People a Priority

The role of a Chief People Officer sparks eager debate. Everyone has a view, yet often can’t define what the role is. Increasingly it is the most demanded vacancy in a C-suite, yet frequently it’s the most challenging hire to make.

In early 2020, Founders Keepers launched the FK CPO Forum, bringing together some of the leading lights of the industry. Our aim being to dig into the key issues and challenges being faced by CPOs in fast paced growth businesses. Our first discussion generated a range of fascinating insights:

Some challenges are universal

Regardless of your sector, stage or size, honesty is key. CPOs are the truth-tellers of the business, who “keep leadership teams and businesses honest”*. “Knowing what you don’t know” is one of the most valuable traits you can have, “if you’re smart and willing enough to ask questions, you can do anything.”

When starting in a new company, take the time to understand the business and its offering – find out how it gains or loses customers, know the product(s), read the reviews. As one CPO’s founder put it, “it’s not enough to love business, you need to love this business”. Proving you have a rounded understanding of your whole business is a must. Likewise, take the time early on to work out where the top talent is in your team. It only takes a few trusted key players to form the solid foundations for your team’s future success.

Chemistry with your CEO is critical, so work hard to build a relationship with them. An important part of a CPO’s role is to be the CEO’s trusted advisor and strategic partner, so it will be very hard to succeed without rapport.

When the CEO/Founder becomes your cheerleader you know you have done your job.

Founder-led businesses are not for everyone

Working in blue chip companies won’t necessarily make someone a fit for the startup/scale-up world. Being great at execution is important, but in startups working with immediacy and having the ability to think on your feet is a bigger priority.

You also need to be prepared for everything to be about them (the founder/the business) and not you. A CPO needs to be strong enough to hold their founder’s thoughts and secrets and translate them back into the business commercially.

For CPOs partnering founders for the first time, it’s important not to lose the confidence and fearlessness you’ve developed in previous, more established businesses, simply because you’re reporting into the person who created the company – it may be their baby, but babies do grow up.

Standardisation can be overrated

In business, we all naturally celebrate and strive for the standardisation of processes, structures or businesses, but perhaps it’s time to take a step back and consider that different teams have their own subcultures and a “one size fits all” approach is often more likely to aggravate rather than encourage employees. People want to be treated as individuals but the increase of process – especially when you also consider the impact of technology – often comes at the cost of personalisation. When it comes to people, it’s often the small things that matter – the devil is in the detail.

People leaders also need their ‘person’

The job of a CPO is tough. You are the secret keepers, you soak up every ounce of the business, some of which is commercially sensitive. As a result you can feel confined when it comes to looking for external advice, wisdom or even just a sounding board. It’s this lack of support that causes even the superstars of the People world to risk burnout.

Having a mentor, coach or trusted advisor makes a huge difference. Having a personal sounding board and counsel can be the difference between you being in control and succeeding, or not.

The workplace is fast evolving, with peoples’ needs becoming more and more complex. A CPO guides us through these changes and helps create unified, high performing teams. By definition our CPOs shouldn’t be “one-size fits all” – this is something to celebrate.

The Founders Keepers CPO Forum is a curated community of successful, inspirational CPOs. We are bringing the community together to spotlight the positive impact of People Leadership in businesses.

If you as a People Leader would like to be a part of a future forum, we would love to hear from you. If you are a Founder interested in hiring a Chief People Leader for your team, we would love to hear from you too.

All quotes mentioned are taken from the FK CPO Forum event, and have not been attributed to individuals due to Chatham House Rules.


Sim Lamb is a Partner at Founders Keepers and the facilitator of the FK CPO Forum, a diverse global community for world leading executive people leaders.

If you would like to join the CPO forum or learn more, please contact Sim on or +44 7415 146 917.