Building a Strategic HR Agenda

Paul is a three-time CPO and current CHRO at Sysdig, a 700-employee Series G cloud security company. Prior to Sysdig, Paul spent three years scaling Cohesity, a data management company, as their CPO. He was also CPO at Databricks, a well-known data and AI company. Prior to Databricks, he held various senior HR roles at Nimble Storage, Infinera, and Parametric Technology, among other tech companies.

For those of you who have had the privilege of interacting with Paul, via his forum comments or in other roundtables, you’ve gotten a glimpse into how smart, thoughtful, and strategic he is in his approach to leading the People function. We hope you enjoy hearing his frameworks and wisdom on the evolving nature of what it means to be a strategic Chief People Officer!

What is a strategic HR agenda, and why is it important?

Within any business function, there are both short-term and long-term problems, and the HR function is no different. Building a strategic agenda is a by-product of taking a longer-term view of the business and its challenges. A tactical agenda is a by-product of taking a responsive view of the day-to-day problems that arise.

Both a strategic and tactical agenda are vital to the business. A common misconception is that focusing on strategic work is inherently more valuable than focusing on tactical work, but you cannot have one without the other. I spend far more time on tactical execution, but the effectiveness of that work is drastically improved by the longer-term thinking that preceded it.

To build a strategic People function you must be clear on your purpose. Ask yourself “why should the company invest in HR versus other functions?” Engineering’s purpose is simple - build great products. Sales’ purpose is simple - sell our product. HR’s purpose is not obvious, and without defining a clear purpose, it becomes nearly impossible to build a strategic agenda. For reference, my purpose statement is “to create the best employment experience of your career,” but this should be personalized to your business and context.

What does a non-strategic HR agenda look like?

Earlier in my career, I defined my purpose as solving problems. If a Slack message (or email, back in my day) came my way, I would rush to solve that specific problem. This made it such that all my resources and energy were devoted to fixing the problems that hit me on a daily basis. I was great at being a problem solver, but I didn’t take enough time to look beyond the horizon.

If you let today trump tomorrow every time, you will not be building towards a strategic agenda. Saying you don’t have time to prioritize strategy is like saying you don’t have time to go to the gym. Everyone has the same 24 hours, and how you choose to spend those 24 hours is up to you. It takes intention and devotion to focus on strategic work, and if you believe it’s important, you need to be actively carving the time out of your day for it.

When joining a new organization, what are the first steps to building a strategic agenda?

Respect history. If you are stepping into a new role, and something looks odd, understand that at one point in time, there was a purpose for it. You are working with smart people, and it is important to always respect the systems they’ve built and make an effort to understand them before trying to tear things down.

Listen to your team. During my first days on the job, I have as many conversations as possible to learn the state of the business. Throughout these conversations, I compare the team’s feedback against an internal framework to decide on the specific areas to focus my efforts.

My framework to build a strategic agenda is to plan out the foundational, operational, and aspirational elements of the People function:

  • Foundational: these are the baseline components of the business, like ensuring that everyone is paid accurately and that we are legally compliant. If these baseline problems aren’t resolved, you must work to systematize them first.

  • Operational: these are the key processes the company needs to know to be able to manage people effectively. This is how you compensate, onboard, develop, promote, and more. This category contains all of the critical business processes that originate in HR but are owned and executed by the business at large. It is our job to ensure that these processes operate as effectively as possible and in line with HR’s larger purpose of “creating the best employment experience of employees’ careers”.

  • Aspirational: these are the highest-level items that you will constantly want to drive and improve to get to their dream state. For me, items like DE&I and cultural values are at this level.

How do you show the value of HR having a strategic agenda?

Know your business. Each company has different business goals they are working towards, so you should first prioritize understanding and aligning with your fellow executives on these goals. Then, utilize the relevant data and show progress towards your goals through the data. As People leaders, we can do more here!

For example, all organizations care about their talent and how they are retaining key team members. One purpose of a tool like Knoetic is to provide a deeper look into your attrition data, allowing you to identify trends among people who are leaving and develop a strategic plan to boost retention. Combining the right combination of anecdotal and statistical data helps you build the perfect picture of a problem and ultimately gain buy-in from the executive team.

[Nancy @ Omada Health] - In my first 90 days at Omada, I created a SWOT on our people and culture. The strategic component came from identifying themes among our strengths and opportunities, aligning those themes with our mission and vision, and then presenting our three-year roadmap to the executive team. It’s iterative, everchanging, and important to keep building this out as new team members join!

[Jean @ Vendasta] - First, I established our People team pillars: hire exceptional talent, create an exceptional employee experience, and build exceptional teams. Each of these pillars have key initiatives that are more tactical and change quarterly or annually. For instance, our “hire exceptional talent” pillar includes initiatives to improve employer brand and bolster outbound recruitment. By framing our goals at multiple levels, we’re able to translate them into language that the broader team can understand and see immediate impact.

What should CPOs with smaller People teams do to avoid being diverted into reactive tasks?

If you don’t have a plan, you will get driven by what hits you next. It is not your specific process or framework that matters - rather it is your executing in accordance with a set process that makes an impact. Especially on leaner teams, you will inevitably be pulled into tactical asks, so build this into your strategic execution plan! Recognize that you will have to be reactive and that it is okay to do this sometime. Nonetheless, it is imperative you commit 20% of your time on executing your strategic plan.

If you are constantly being pulled into reactive work on task X, be sure to come up for air and continue to evaluate the task strategically. Your CEO will want to know: Is task X still the right path forward? What roadblocks are hindering our goal-state of task X? Do you still think task X is important? The executive team should feel comfortable that you are thinking about task X in a holistic way, even if you are playing a more tactical role.

How has the economic downturn impacted your roadmap?

There have been changes to how customers are purchasing products, and they are slowing down their buying processes. We would be foolish not to react to this. We are reassessing our different processes and seeing if they still make sense, given the economic climate:

  • What areas should we continue to prioritize?
  • What areas should we look to optimize to promote efficiency?
  • What areas should we pause or slow down?

[Colleen @ Catapult]
- Being in the FinTech space, we have definitely already begun to see the impact of the downturn. Earlier in the year, we were focusing on things like talent acquisition, time-to-fill, and time-to-close. As I’ve presented these metrics in quarterly business reviews, I’ve had to shift metrics towards retention, performance reviews, and thoughtful strategies for managers as a response to the changing macro environment.

Audience Questions:

[Lauren @ Ophelia] - In the spirit of not being reactive, how do you deal with the cognitive weight of having 15 unanswered Slack messages without adding to your stress?

[Paul] - People team employees are often service-oriented people who want to show our competency and reactivity, so I understand the issue. In reality, if you respond at 9pm at night or 9am the next morning, people won’t take issue. The best advice I can give is to remind you that you are working with reasonable people and that they will be quite happy, as long as you are reasonably responsive.

[Ignacio @ Multiplica] - What are the three KPIs you use to show progress towards your People goals?

[Paul] - Most importantly, you should be reporting on what your executive team cares about. Sometimes you will be educating them on what they should care about, and sometimes you will be responding to their stated priorities. Whatever the case may be, your KPIs should align with the areas of highest operational and business relevance.

[Anonymous] - How do you bring your People team into the process?

[Paul] - Planning is always best done as a team. As it so happens, the People team knows our data and OKRs, and they have the right to challenge assumptions. Explain to them the value of seeing beyond tactical execution, and they’ll be eager to join the process.

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