By Kimberly J Shanahan
CHROs touch every part of an organization and can positively or negatively impact everything from your company’s recruiting strategies and sales goals to branding and culture. Yet, some CEOs are not on solid footing when interviewing candidates for this role. Red flags may not be obvious. Key questions may not be addressed. Likewise, important personality traits may be overlooked.
As former CHRO at Compass Group, a global contract foodservice company, Gary Snyder has since climbed the corporate ranks to CEO of Compass Education, which represents the education portfolio of the Compass Group. Recently, he was involved in the hiring process of Compass Education’s new senior vice president of HR.
Snyder and Ryan Taylor, who was chosen for the SVP role, offer practical advice for CEOs on screening and selecting qualified candidates for the top HR job. What questions tend to be missed? What experience is needed? What does the CHRO expect from the CEO? Here’s a sneak peek into their recent hiring experience.
Shanahan: Given your HR background, Gary, what personality traits should CEOs require, even demand, of their next CHRO?
Snyder: Make sure you hire somebody with the wherewithal and courage to check or debate your thoughts or decisions. I looked for somebody who had a backbone, a spine, was intellectually curious, and willing to take ownership for something I needed to let go of.
Shanahan: You also mentioned the importance of resilience.
Snyder: Ask CHRO candidates if they can take a punch or have really thick skin. While I wasn’t hiring a CHRO during COVID, the pandemic is a real time example of resiliency. Fifty percent of our business has been shut down. We need to be unbelievably nimble on how we handle labor, personnel costs and expense, work design selection. . .I needed to recruit a businessperson with specialized skills in HR, not an HR person who wants to be a businessperson.
Shanahan: So what type of business experiences are required for a CHRO role?
Snyder: When the CEO of Compass hired me as CHRO years ago, he told me that he needed a sweeper. After making tough decisions, he needs someone to clean things up that don’t always make everyone happy. I rely on Ryan to create, at times, optimal tension for peak performance. That means, at times, we will have different viewpoints that we have to work through and also gather and share information some people may not want to see. CEOs need a CHRO who can create, manage and mediate through that to get to the best outcome. What’s also important is the person’s experience in moving an organization forward in growth and when it needs to contract like where we are now.
Shanahan: You believe that a significant attribute of CHROs is not personalizing their responses to CEOs, something you call, “the art of nonreaction”. Can you further explain?
Snyder: At any point in a conversation, even if I respond negatively, I watch the person’s reaction. The best CHROs simply don’t react or get emotional. When CHROs deal with execs with big egos or those who believe strongly in only one course of action, having the skillset to get people to compromise, reach a different conclusion, or consider multiple avenues, and do it in such a way where they don’t personally get caught up in an opinion that differs from their own, is an art.
Shanahan: But how do you distinguish emotion from passion?
Snyder: There’s a big difference between them. At the end of the day, does the CHRO believe his or her or job is to be right on any particular issue, or to help business leaders get to the right business solution? The CHROs who are really good offer the contrarian view even if they don’t believe it will get to the right outcome.
Shanahan: During your interview, Ryan, what were some key questions Gary asked?
Taylor: Many of the questions revolved around cultural fit, such as how to balance patience and driving change. Or around prioritization, overcoming challenges, and assessing opportunities. Technical HR skills were not the focus of the questions. Rather the focus was on how I could assimilate to a new organization, in a different industry, after spending the majority of my career in financial services.
Snyder: We also talked about breakage. The line of breakage on change is much closer here than in banking. I asked, ‘In our culture, how far would he push to prevent breakage and when should it be created?’ I want breakage created but need it defined in such a way that we know when it will happen versus unintended breakage.
Shanahan: How important are advanced degrees compared to training?
Snyder: Continuous learning as adults or professionals is important, no matter how it manifests itself. While I think it’s good for somebody to have an undergraduate degree and a certain level of training, I look for someone with a pedigree of very good HR training, a high level of corporate responsibility, and a business mindset. It’s less about the formal education and more about the quality of experiences and training.
Shanahan: Realistically, what areas should CEOs watch out for?
Taylor: CHROs and CEO can’t be too symbiotic or similar in thinking and style. CEO’s should look for a CHRO who feels comfortable presenting diverse views and alternatives that can be debated. There’s also a fine line between the ability to build strong relationships with people you work with and having enough separation so you can remain objective. I’ve seen some CHROs who are all about relationships cross that line or lose some of their objectivity.
Snyder: That’s an important point. Ryan’s HR job is to serve the organization, not me. If our leadership team perceives that he’s only going to support or act out my opinion and can’t influence me differently based on what’s really needed, then he’s not doing his job. Too many times, the CHRO is defined as doing what the CEO wants. I think it should be 50 percent executing strategy and 50 percent influencing, sharing different perspectives and vantage points so we get to the right solution. The CHRO needs to feel comfortable saying, “You may be wrong on this one. Let me tell you why.”
Shanahan: As a CEO, Gary, what would be a deal breaker?
Snyder: Many HR folks have grown up in compliance or on the legal side and see themselves as the control partner. You can’t innovate in a business if the CHRO is constantly knocking down ideas because they have some level of risk. If they’re only focused on risk and not putting ideas on the table, that’s a police mentality, which is antiquated.
Shanahan: Likewise, Ryan, where do CEOs go wrong? What do you expect from them?
Taylor: CEOs have to be open to new ideas, admit they don’t know everything, and value different perspectives. Given how variable the HR function is, I would need to understand that the CEO wants to leverage HR as a strategic partner to help drive the business. Some CEO’s or companies use HR in a more tactical way which is a missed opportunity.
Shanahan: You previously worked together for more than a decade. Does that create a sticky situation?
Snyder: There is a potential danger, especially if it’s someone who thinks too much like you do. In my case, if the hiring team came back and told me Ryan was a no-go, I wouldn’t put the team at risk by enforcing my decision. Ryan had to earn the job.
Taylor: To Gary’s credit, he didn’t force his opinion about me on the people I spoke with during the recruiting process. He wanted their independent opinions. The CEOs of the businesses that Gary leads kicked the tires pretty hard on me. It almost seemed like they had a higher bar for me because they knew I had worked with Gary in the past.
Chief Executive Officer & Founder
Executive search experience to accelHRate. She Co-Leads accelHRate’s Board of Directors Practice and leads our CHRO Practice. She has partnered with hundreds of clients across multiple industries and geographies to place Board of Directors and CHRO talent.
Chief Executive Officer
Gary joined Compass Group in 2011 as Executive Vice President, Human Resources and was appointed Chief People Officer in 2014. Responsible for human resources, communications, and labor relations for over 250,000 associates in the United States and Canada, he successfully reengineered and led the human resources function to meet the needs of one of America’s largest employers. He was appointed CEO of Compass Education in 2017.
SVP, Human Resources
Ryan joined Compass Group in 2019 as Senior Vice President, Human Resources. He previously spent 15 years at Bank of America and served as the Leadership Development Executive for the Global Technology & Operations business unit.