What CEOs Look For in an HR Pro

December 13, 2019

HR professionals are drivers of culture, champions of compliance, and skilled strategic thinkers. So why does HR still struggle to get a seat at the table in so many organizations? We gathered thoughts on what CEOs look for in an HR pro to help the HR pros of the world get the executive buy-in they desire. Here are excerpts from three interviews with HR experts from BambooHR.

What traits and experience do you look for when hiring an HR professional?

Ben Peterson, BambooHR co-founder, co-chairman, and former CEO

“I look for someone who is naturally wise. There’s an element of great HR that requires both compassion and doing what’s right for the business. Another important skill is completeness. They have to get the whole story. They have to completely understand what’s happening and ask lots of questions to seek to understand and do the right thing.

Finally, intentionality. An HR pro needs to do things with purpose, be thoughtful, and have a business sense. For example, with manager training and hiring, there’s a heavy dependence on them to be the example in their own department and execute business processes exceptionally well. So much more than policies and procedures. Everything from payroll, which is super technical, to working on culture, which is super broad.”

Cassie Whitlock, director of HR at BambooHR

“At their core, all HR professionals should, no matter what business or industry, know the rules and regulations…You need to know and recognize that because of the nature of your job, you have to continue learning. You are the only one being asked to know those things for the whole company.

Not every HR person has every skill set and every level of experience they need. It’s being willing to figure it out. If you’ve never built a compensation model before, go figure it out. Research, talk to people, take a class.

In addition, you have to have good communication skills. Too often HR has had experiences that turn off employees and leadership, so when we talk about good communication skills, it’s about being mindful of not just communicating data points. If you’re trying to influence a decision, you have to do it in palatable ways. To be effective in HR, you have to communicate goodness and positivity—not just that you’re all red tape and rules, here to say no.”

James “JD” Conway, head of talent acquisition at BambooHR

“One of the main things that I look for is: Can you tie the things that are traditionally seen as warm and fuzzy to actual business outputs? HR professionals should be able to understand the workforce and understand needs, then be able to analyze the numbers and build pitches and frameworks.

Resilience and emotional intelligence are also essential. Everyone talks about emotional intelligence, but no one is sure how to define it. It’s okay to have emotion, but you should be able to calmly and not negatively keep that at bay while you examine your actions and next steps. That’s needed all over the place, but without that, you can’t have a successful HR team.”

What role should HR play in company strategy?

Ben Peterson

“The number one piece of every strategy should be the growth of people. HR plays a role in strategy formation and execution. They represent the employee and act as the voice of the employee.”

Cassie Whitlock

“The role HR plays in strategy is entirely up to leadership and will depend on the skills and competency of every HR person.

“Don’t have HR initiatives, have business opportunities and solutions.”

Who in your organization is tasked with looking at the entire company for opportunities around its people? Hopefully, your senior team should be doing that and driving strategy, but HR is a unique resource that can focus on the opportunities and projects in a way that others cannot.

HR should be a partner with senior leadership. When there is a gap in strategy, it is one of HR’s opportunities to help leadership identify and be mindful of those gaps, but never in a finger-pointing way. They are a team together, working on the same cause.”

JD Conway

“If you’re really tapped into the workforce, then you’ll be a valued asset to strategy. You need to be there to bring up the topics that get lost in strategy sessions—like, what is the effect on the workforce, and how can we mitigate that? Or, how can managers do something differently? HR can act to empower the strategy and be a voice of warning. Sometimes decisions get made and people don’t consider how employees will feel about it.”

What can HR professionals do to get CEO buy-in for HR initiatives?

Ben Peterson

“I get why people ask this, but I don’t think that’s the right question. The question should be, “How could HR be the best support for the company?” By supporting company initiatives, HR fulfills its role. The thought process should be: What’s the most important thing for the company, and how can we deliver that together? And where does HR’s role fit within the company strategy?”

Cassie Whitlock

“Is it a business need, yes or no? If you bring something to the table as an HR problem, why would they buy in? If it’s a business problem or need, they will see the value of it. Identify pain points and present a way to fix them. Don’t have HR initiatives, have business opportunities and solutions.”

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JD Conway

“You need to be able to relate changes that need to be made that will create better outputs to the bottom line. If you want to speak with executives and work with them, you need to show them how you can help growth and retention. We finally have ways to measure effectiveness and output with tools like employee satisfaction. Use thoughtful testing and historical data to show results.”


It might take some time to convince your executive team that HR issues are business issues. But as you provide the data and insights that only HR can, you do more than chase approval for single projects—you become an indispensable part of helping your organization succeed. The HR team and executive team all have the same goal: a successful company. If you show your CEO that HR’s goals are aligned with company goals, you should be able to help move company strategy forward.

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Danielle Cronquist

Danielle Cronquist is a copywriter for BambooHR. Her six years as a professional writer are supported by a degree in English with a minor in editing. At BambooHR, she focuses on creating content that gives people the tools and knowledge they need to do great work and create great workplaces.