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Chief People Officer vs Chief Human Resources Officer vs Chief Administrative Officer

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What Is a CPO vs. a CHRO vs. a CAO?

While companies increasingly recognize the importance of human capital, determining how best to nurture their people is less straightforward.

Although some take the tried and trusted Human Resource approach, leading with a Chief Human Resources Officer, others lean towards a more principled approach that focuses on Talent Management under a Chief People Officer. Yet again, some companies choose to manage their talent from an operations perspective, and they appoint a Chief Administrative Officer to take point.

But how much do we understand about these roles and the functions that underlie them?

Do these roles exist as true alternatives — or are they more in the nature of complementary positions that might find relevance within the same organization?

What follows is a discussion of these important roles, including their duties, required skills, and qualifications, and where they fit within the “people” function of companies.

CHRO Role: What Does a Chief Human Resource Officer Do?

The Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO) is the head of the traditional Human Resource (HR) department. HR is the broadest function that covers every aspect of an employee’s lifecycle, from initial recruitment to disengagement, and the CHRO chairs this unit. Perhaps, due to this, the CHRO can be said to have the most demanding job of the people function.

The CHRO is a C-suite member responsible for developing and executing HR strategy in line with core organizational goals and strategy. Their duties encompass recruitment, talent management, performance management, compensation, training and development, change management, and succession planning.

They have vast responsibilities that touch aspects of every other business unit. Together with the HR team, the CHRO is responsible for:

  • Articulating and clarifying an HR vision to the board, senior management, and shareholders
  • Developing and implementing an HR masterplan/culture, including identifying specific needs and charting courses of execution
  • Developing compensation and benefits plans in line with industry best practices
  • Determining hiring needs, designing recruitment processes, and conducting hiring either alone or alongside external search firms
  • Overseeing compliance with labor laws and regulations, as well as monitoring and staying updated with new developments in HR laws and practice
  • Tracking employee absences such as paid and unpaid leave, vacation time, sick days, etc.
  • Organizing and managing employee training and continuing development
  • Developing mentoring and buddy programs
  • Implementing and monitoring compliance with DEI initiatives (in the absence of a DEI unit)
  • Planning and executing change policies alongside senior management
  • Overseeing discipline of staff
  • Responsible for resolution of disputes between employees and between employees and direct reports
  • Conducting and compiling performance reviews and employee track record alongside line managers and heads of business units
  • Managing and disbursing of death benefits, pensions, and post-employee lifecycle benefits
  • Layoffs, redundancies, suspension, termination, and general disengagement of staff

Because of their sizable portfolio, the CHRO often carries extensive experience in executive HR roles. While they don’t need to have prior experience as head of HR, experience in talent management and designing and implementing HR initiatives is critical.

CPO Role: What Does a Chief People Officer Do?

Compared to the CHRO, a Chief People Officer (CPO) has a more streamlined and targeted focus. The role developed in response to an increasing need for workplaces that attract and retain top talent.

In an age of lofty candidate expectations and fierce competition for top talent, companies can no longer escape with doing the bare minimum for their people. As a result, job seekers and employees are demanding a better workplace experience and a keener focus on their needs. They want to be recognized for the valuable assets they are, and they insist that this reflect in their everyday work environment.

As a result, the role of the CPO was born to provide what can best be described as a champion for employees. The CPO is primarily charged with leading a focus on human capital. They support companies by implementing the best strategy and processes that help them find exceptional employees and keep them happy.

While CPOs are generally advisors or consultants, they may also be required to execute solutions. Their job includes optimizing, and in many cases planning, people-centered activities like talent acquisition, talent management, performance management, and professional development to benefit the company’s bottom line and employee satisfaction.

Their duties include the following:

  • Working with management to define and translate a company culture that respects and empowers employees
  • Championing, or cultivating, core company values that set up a workplace that is positive, connected and engaging
  • Designing a stellar people experience, right from initial application to hiring, onboarding, and throughout the employee lifecycle
  • Managing the strategy of building and retaining an exceptional talent base
  • Advocating or standing up for employees in senior management and board meetings

Due to their people-focused role, CPOs are frequently a part of the HR function or often have an HR background. In fact, some consider the CPO to be the highest HR role because they arguably focus on the most critical HR duty – hiring and retaining happy and productive employees.

CAO Role: What Does a Chief Administrative Officer Do?

Unlike the first two roles, Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) are less people-focused and more operations-driven. Their job is to oversee companies’ day-to-day operations, monitor output, and ensure high service delivery.

While the CPO and CHRO face inwards, the CAO’s duties are largely outward-facing. They have charge over company departments discharging core consumer-facing tasks, and it is their responsibility to tie operations to customer service. They set or oversee daily tasks and make sure each department does its part to accomplish the company’s day-to-day business.

In many ways, the job of a CAO seems similar to that of a COO. Both roles are operations-driven, and, as members of the C-suite, they both report to the CEO and board of directors and work closely with senior management. However, that’s where the similarities end. While the CAO role is regarded as more permanent and inflexible, the COO is chameleon-like, molding to fit whatever requirements the CEO or board have regarding the role.

The duties of a CAO include the following:

  • Manages daily administrative operations
  • Oversees company staff, but primarily as it relates to service delivery
  • Assigns daily tasks, monitors output in conjunction with line managers and supervisors, and collaborates with HR on quarterly or half-yearly performance reviews
  • Understands core business functions and how they combine to achieve the company’s daily business
  • Undertakes resource allocation and operations budgeting (in the absence of COO)
  • Has charge of shop floor and ties various functions together in discharging daily company business
  • Takes point on change initiatives and policies targeted towards improving or managing productivity (in the absence of COO)
  • Organizes and coordinates inter and intradepartmental operations
  • Provides a bridge between operations and customer service – their job is to ensure sustained output at/above a level that customers want
  • Sets and monitors KPIs for departments and business functions

How Do the 3 Roles Compare?

While the roles of CPO, CHRO, and CAO include apparent areas of overlap, there’s enough distinction amongst their duties to set them up as distinct positions. Therefore, apart from a need to specifically assign recruitment to one of the CPO or CHRO, each office can coexist in the same organization.

That said, this is likely a luxury that only large organizations can enjoy. In smaller organizations, it’s more likely that a single office will carry out the duties inherent in each position, or the CAO role may be farmed out to HR in conjunction with line managers.

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