The Makings of a Great CHRO: Navigating CEO Expectations and Executive Relations

29th September 2023

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, the role of the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) is undergoing a profound transformation. No longer confined to traditional HR functions, modern CHROs are expected to operate with the finesse of business unit presidents, aligning human capital strategies with overarching business goals. Dr. Martin Luke Oduor Otieno, a former CEO at Kenya Commercial Bank, and a distinguished expert in this field, recently shed light on the evolving expectations Chief Executives have for their Human Capital Leaders and the qualities that make a CHRO truly exceptional.


In his insightful discourse to the RIKA Leadership Programme, Cohort of Leaders 2023, Dr. Otieno addressed three fundamental questions: What do CEOs expect from the Human Resource function? What sets great CHROs apart? And what should be the nature of the relationship between the CEO and the CHRO? Let's dive into these critical aspects of modern HR leadership.


CEOs' Expectations of the Human Resource Function

CEOs today demand much more from their CHROs and HR teams. According to Dr. Otieno, these are the key expectations CEOs have for their HR leaders:


  • A Valuable Advisor and Navigator for the CEO: CHROs are anticipated to serve as strategic allies, offering valuable insights and counsel to the CEO. They should have the capacity to grasp the broader perspective and assist the CEO in making pivotal choices concerning talent, culture, and the growth of the organization.
  • A source of executive coaching and mentorship to the CEO: Great CHROs understand that CEOs are not infallible and can benefit from external perspectives. They actively encourage CEOs to seek mentorship and feedback from outside the organization to enhance their leadership skills as well as provide the required leader-to-leader coaching when necessary.
  • A trusted ally to the CEO: Trust is the cornerstone of any successful CEO-CHRO relationship. CEOs expect their CHROs to be confidants who can be relied upon for discretion, honesty, and unwavering support.
  • A skillful business Growth Strategist with human capital at the core: HR is no longer confined to talent management but is a critical driver of business growth. CEOs expect CHROs to channel the strength of the organization's human capital to propel the company forward.
  • Honest and Constructive Feedback: CEOs appreciate candid feedback from their CHROs. Constructive criticism helps CEOs make informed decisions and course corrections when necessary.


Qualities of Exceptional CHROs

To excel in the role of a modern CHRO, individuals must possess a unique blend of competencies and qualities. Exceptional CHROs have a deep understanding of the business and industry they operate in. They are keenly aware of market dynamics, competition, and how HR strategies can contribute to the bottom line.

CHROs must be adept at aligning HR initiatives with the broader business strategy. They play a pivotal role in ensuring that talent and culture are in sync with the company's goals. Data-driven decision-making is now the norm. CHROs should leverage analytics to inform HR strategies and demonstrate the impact of human capital on business outcomes.


Great CHROs are proactive in identifying opportunities for HR to drive business results. They collaborate closely with other executives to create synergy across the organization. They must be skilled navigators in the realm of leadership. They can influence and advise their peers and the CEO, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and development.


For any CHRO, building trust is paramount. Exceptional CHROs are confidants who inspire trust among their peers, providing a safe space for open and honest dialogue.


The CEO-CHRO Relationship

The partnership between the CEO and the CHRO is pivotal to an organization's success and should be characterized by mutual respect, trust, and open communication. Here are some key takeaways on this front:

Collaboration, Not Just Compliance: The CEO and CHRO should collaborate as strategic partners, working together to achieve the company's goals. The days of HR merely complying with the CEO's directives are long gone.


  • A Unified Vision: Both the CEO and CHRO should share a common vision for the organization. This alignment ensures that HR strategies are congruent with the broader business strategy.
  • Regular and Open Communication: Communication should flow freely between the CEO and CHRO. Regular meetings and check-ins help address concerns and align priorities.
  • A Culture of Feedback: Constructive feedback should be a two-way street. Both the CEO and CHRO should be open to giving and receiving feedback to foster continuous improvement.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability: In a fast-paced business environment, flexibility is key. The CEO-CHRO relationship should be adaptable to changing circumstances and evolving business needs.


Answering Critical Questions

During the discourse, Dr. Otieno also addressed important questions from participants:


What CEOs Look for in a CHRO at the Top Level: CEOs seek CHROs who are not just HR experts but also business leaders. They want individuals who can drive strategic initiatives, innovate, and contribute to the organization's growth.


Preparing Executives for CEO Roles: When executives are ready for CEO positions but not actively pursuing them, HR plays a crucial role. HR should engage in candid conversations with these individuals, understand their aspirations, and create development plans to groom them for future leadership roles.


Building a High-Performance Culture: Building a high-performance culture starts with leadership. CHROs and CEOs must lead by example, have a clear vision, set high standards, and create an environment that encourages excellence. This includes providing regular feedback, recognizing, and rewarding top performers, and fostering a growth mindset throughout the organization.


The role of the CHRO has evolved dramatically, and today's CHROs must possess a unique blend of competencies and qualities to excel. They are expected to be strategic partners to the CEO, align HR with business strategy, and drive organizational growth through effective talent management. The CEO-CHRO relationship is a critical element of this equation, requiring trust, collaboration, and a shared vision. By embracing these principles and evolving with the changing business landscape, CHROs can truly become indispensable leaders in the modern corporate world.