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How CEOs and Chief People Officers Can Build Lasting Partnerships

February 13, 2023
By Christina Pasanen

Strategic priorities are constantly changing at early-stage companies, but a strong People leader can help a CEO unlock what needs to happen and how to get there. 

To better navigate these shifting priorities, we recently partnered with True Search to provide an interactive forum for CEOs and Chief People Officers to discuss how to most effectively lead teams in the current market. 

From how to maintain culture and boost morale to how to manage performance and enable a highly engaged workforce, our CEO-Chief People Officer panel included expert insights from: 

Here are a few key takeaways from their candid discussion on how to build organizations for success and scale:

It takes two to align on priorities

For Electric’s Ryan Denehy, hiring was the top priority for the SMBTech company. But after Jamie Coakley joined the startup in 2018 as VP of People, she quickly noticed that Ryan was only spending a few hours a week conducting interviews. 

According to Jamie, she and Ryan worked together “to reprioritize Ryan’s schedule and spend more time on hiring.” By identifying the right time allocation, Jamie and Ryan were able to unlock a key business priority. 

Now as SVP, People at Electric, Jamie reflects on that crucial realignment: “We went on the journey of sharing our vision and … making sure those core values reflected the behavior in the team … We got to build the company we always wanted to work for, and we aligned on what we want to put in place to make the company—and the world—better.”

The role—and impact—of a People leader will evolve

A strong partnership between a CEO and a People leader is dynamic, and as a company grows, a People leader’s role will evolve. It can require updating a People leader’s job description as economies of scale present new challenges. 

When Amy Stoldt joined Snappy in August 2020, CEO Hani Goldstein had already built out a well-defined vision, mission, and culture at the company. During the early stages, Hani was able to connect with individuals and maintain a pulse on the org. However as the company grew, Amy and Hani worked on solving for company engagement at scale while maintaining Snappy’s human-centric approach—all while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

They partnered on this by implementing surveys and empowering managers to have pulse checks with their teams. Hani insisted that “leaders really spend time understanding the surveys and deciding what to do with that information.” She had leaders identify what needed to change in their organizations and put a time frame around when those changes would be implemented. 

As Hani and Amy shared, a CEO and a People leader need to trust each other. This trust is built from honest conversations, empathy, and always staying true to the right decision for the company. While it isn’t always easy to have tough conversations—whether about performance, culture, or assessing gaps in the organization—doing so allows the company to evolve and scale successfully.

Keep your team engaged—especially during uncertain times

With distributed teams and during times of macroeconomic uncertainty, leadership teams need to be even more intentional about keeping their teams engaged. 

As Ryan says: “Great culture does not happen by accident. People crave seeing each other, and it’s incumbent on us to facilitate that.” To that end, Ryan and Jamie ensure that people get together within the organization—whether that’s with regional dinners, Marvel comic-themed Slack channels, or “Electricity Halls,” sessions where employees across functions, regions, and tenures get together with Ryan. These low-cost solutions can be a quick way to get a pulse on employees and keep teams aligned to the company mission. 

Another quick-win is “stay interviews”—the inverse of exit interviews. These pulse checks (typically conducted by People leaders, HR, or line managers) demonstrate a commitment to top performers and can reveal how to keep them motivated. There are many ways to engage teams but having meaningful discussions outside of the typical day-to-day conversations can be a great place to start.

Help develop managers as the megaphone

Empowering managers as the voice of employees is another way to keep teams engaged. As Snappy’s Amy Stoldt says, “engagement comes down to the managers … in exit interviews, we’ve heard that some folks have left because they felt their manager needed to improve in specific aspects  ... So we invested in a management training series for new managers to have meaningful conversations with teams.” 

As part of this training, managers are now expected to conduct pulse checks and provide monthly updates on the general feeling within their teams. By giving managers a voice as well, the end result can clarify the needs of employees, mitigate regrettable attrition, and provide meaningful insights around employee sentiment.

Support development as a “career jungle gym”

For many organizations and employees, career development has always been architected as a linear progression—going up the functional career ladder. However, People leaders echoed that the best way for employees to grow is not always up but can be lateral, down—or even moving on. When it comes to retention, it’s up to People leaders, leadership teams, and managers to educate employees on the different ways that career paths can unfold within a company. 

People leaders and managers should spend time with employees to design Personal Development Plans (PDPs) that identify alternate paths other than just up. And it’s also OK if that alternate path is moving on. 

Remember: Tech company tenure is typically counted in years, not decades. Don’t be afraid to talk to employees about how they can maximize their experience and contribution in the years they’re with a company. Well-thought-out PDPs can unlock new career paths and improve retention and employee engagement in the time they’re part of the team.

As described by each of our panelists, CEOs can cultivate an enduring partnership with their Chief People Officers. With these tried-and-true strategies, together they can help keep company priorities on track, solve organizational debt, and build high-performing teams that can fulfill the company mission and vision.

*Represents a company in GGV’s portfolio