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A Founder's Guide to the Growth-Focused Chief People Officer

A mini handbook focusing on how to scale with a CPO

For tech start-ups (technically all start-ups), success hinges on its people. In the early days of an organisation, the founder is part of the close-knit team, understanding their challenges intimately. But as the organisation grows, the founder’s priorities continue to pile on from product development to revenue opportunities and securing investment. The people side often starts to get overlooked. 

We’ve been advising founders for over 15 years on their people strategy, hiring capabilities, and placing top talent into their businesses to grow and scale. We continuously stress to every founder we work with that investing in people early is crucial for growth. 

Especially when we now understand talent’s expectations when going into a role; flexibility, learning, hybrid working, D&I, work/life balance, compensation & benefit packages, specific policies - all of these need to be designed, implemented and managed.

Reducing talent turnover, navigating ambitious growth, and hiring the right humans requires a Growth-Focused CPO;

A role we’ll delve into in this article written by Think & Grow partners, Dan Spencer in Australia and Paul Marks in the UK, who have both held key people leadership positions in the past. They’ll discuss how the CPO role supports fast-growing tech businesses and how founders can craft an effective people strategy based on their strengths. 

Why the CPO role is often misunderstood (and why that needs to change) 

Founders can often hesitate to hire a CPO due to misconceptions about the role and not knowing its full scope or potential. It’s common to end up with a misalignment and mismatched human to the role. For example, they may seek a highly strategic, commercial, and global leader CPO before having the HR basics in place that support the day-to-day of the business. 

When this misalignment happens, the founder/CEO gets burned by the experience and is unwilling to give it another go or opts for an entirely different skillset. Yet the CPO plays a critical role in shaping company culture, talent attraction, retention, and development, and the overall people strategy at scale. 

Founders must have clarity on what their business needs in a CPO, and the good news is that hiring a P&C leader doesn’t have to be complicated or risky. A good understanding of the role is the first step to feeling confident in the type and level of leader you need. 

“The focus on the role of the CPO has intensified, with a heavy responsibility to lead the organisation’s approach to people risk, reputation, and future planning in a highly competitive global talent market,” Paul comments. “What is undeniable is that every business is facing a talent shortage, whether because of a lack of specific skills or simply the right volume of people in the right place at the right cost – so CPOs are increasingly at the forefront of managing organisational challenges. Founders that empower the CPO role can benefit from strategic insights on how their workforce embraces change and how the organisation can be positioned to thrive.”

How the CPO role has evolved over the past 12 months and why start-up founders are hiring them earlier in a growth stage. 

Wellbeing: People and Culture has been elevated in the past few years which correlates with the rise of mental health and wellbeing significance among employees. It’s no surprise P&C leaders are being hired earlier in the growth life cycle of businesses to remain competitive and productive.   

The data in our 23/24 Australian Tech Salary Guide backs this up, with smaller companies investing in wellbeing and mental health initiatives earlier. 

Recognition: HR representation is increasing in board discussions, industry bodies, and VC leaders roles, reflecting their integral part in driving business growth. This recognition underscores the positive impact of effective people management on overall growth. 

Support: CPOs are relied upon to navigate the more challenging parts of operating a business in unpredictable (and uncomfortable) periods. As we see many businesses ‘doing more with less’ right now, the people function is instrumental in the difficult decisions being made and the conversations around redundancies and cutbacks.  

Expansion: As start-ups look to scale internationally, growth-focused CPOs come into their own as crucial scar tissue to feed their knowledge and experience into the strategy. Growing headcount in the new market, establishing the right global leadership structure, managing communication between HQ and the new market, creating performance frameworks and maintaining culture are just a few responsibilities they will take on. 

Performance and data: Data continues to be leveraged more within every function of a business; CPOs who understand the data they need to look at to weave it into performance KPIs and their talent strategy will be the ones to watch.

Our expert tips for hiring a growth-focused CPO 

-Be really clear on where your business is from a P&C perspective. This will help define the role and expectations. E.g. Are you lacking in specific systems or processes? 

-Don’t over hire or under hire. Select a candidate with the appropriate level of experience and skills for the job at hand. While some Head of Talent individuals have successfully transitioned into the Head of P&C role, those lacking HR ops experience may struggle to make a meaningful impact in certain areas.

-Cultural fit is critical in this role. Your future CPO will play a pivotal role in shaping and reinforcing your company's culture especially as you scale to new markets. Candidates need strong values and a working style that aligns with the company’s existing culture as well as your own. 

- Seek expert advice. Founders come to Think & Grow because they want to hire the right role and human resource that their business needs, without wasting money or time. If you’re a founder who doesn’t understand HR, unaware of the impact that an excellent P&C leader can have on your business or you don’t know the skill sets required in a CPO for scaling - external help could provide that clarity for you. 

- Invest in building a P&C team, not just one human. Like all things, the investment needs to align with the business size and growth, but too often we see P&C leaders brought into a business, but aren’t given the support to build out the team, as the business scales and grows. 

A growth-focused CPO needs to be able to: 

  • Drive the acceleration and take the indigestion out of the business by implementing effective processes and strong KPI-driven performance frameworks.
  • Translate the vision and growth strategy into a people perspective.
  • Maintain the fine balance of the business and people's needs. 
  • Unite the leadership team, embedding and nurturing a high-performing mindset that radiates from the top down. This includes offering support and guidance to the founder.

What type of CPO does your business need? 

The right CPO can unlock the potential of yourself as a founder, your leadership team and your entire business by supporting cultural changes that your start-up will inevitably go through as it aspires and drives towards exponential growth. 

If you want to find out more about how we can help you hire a CPO or any leadership role, get in touch with dan@thinkandgrowinc.com in Australia or paul@thinkandgrowinc.com in the UK.


ARTICLE by Dan Spencer, Partner, 5 March 2024


ARTICLE by Paul Marks, Partner, 5 March 2024

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