CEOs are leaning more and more on their CHROs

CEO of Kayak and OpenTable says relationship with his CHRO is vital to business success.
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· 5 min read

Romy and Michele, peanut butter and jelly, Harry Styles and Lizzo—there are no dreamier duos than these, except maybe CEOs and CHROs. The HR function has become increasingly influential since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and now more than ever, CEOs are turning to HR leaders to guide their companies and cultures.

Prior to the pandemic, HR was largely viewed as an administrative function, but that changed dramatically as companies swiftly went remote and grappled with burnout and the Great Resignation. “[HR] had to beg to get time before the full board in the past, but now HR chiefs are sitting in board meetings as active participants,” SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. told Time in February. Some 61% of US employers said their HR department reports directly to their company’s CEO, president, or owner, according to a 2021 XpertHR survey, an indication that businesses have elevated and understand the value of HR operations.

Steve Hafner and Sophie Gelsthorpe have experienced this change first hand. The respective CEO and chief people officer of Kayak and OpenTable, which joined forces under parent company Booking Holdings, recently spoke with HR Brew about their working relationship and HR’s growing role in the two businesses. “I used to always look at HR as a function that helps me attract a great team. And then it was my job to motivate that team,” Hafner explained. “I didn’t realize that HR could actually be a feedback loop.”

Working together. When he founded Kayak in 2004, Hafner said his relationship with HR was all about talent acquisition. Come 2020, that completely changed. “The pandemic upended both of our businesses: travel and dining. And what we really wanted to focus on was how… we [could] support our team through that.” This, he said, was critical, because Kayak and OpenTable’s predominantly young workforce wanted guidance and connection. “Sophie worked with me to make sure that our engagement…our mental support for our employees, and our benefits all help them stay engaged,” noting that their engagement scores are now higher than ever.

Hafner also relied on HR when he decided to take the companies fully remote in October 2021. After trying to bring employees back to the office three days a week in June, Gelsthorpe shared written feedback from employees who said they didn’t want to return. Working remotely, they said, made them more effective. Hafner used these insights to pivot to a work-from-anywhere strategy.

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“I didn’t appreciate how much of a resource HR could actually be in terms of pushing the business forward,” Hafner explained. “I also have a much finer appreciation now for how complicated it is. HR used to be a lot easier 10 years ago, before all this regulation, before employee expectations were different, [and] before folks moved countries.”

Finding a balance. One of the challenges CEOs and CHROs face together is balancing the needs of employees with those of the business and its shareholders. Strategically leveraging data, Gelsthorpe said, has been key.

During the pandemic, for example, Hafner and Gelsthorpe noticed that employees were quitting faster than they could hire. With a “if you can measure it, you can manage it” approach, they worked together to flip the script, launching initiatives including the work-from-anywhere policy and a two-week, companies-wide vacation.

Making their mark. While still not uncommon for HR personnel to be left out of high-level conversations, Gelsthorpe said data can give them an in. Don’t just ask for a new benefit or initiative—show why it’s needed. “Use things like engagement surveys and information from your employees so you have that data to say, ‘This is what our people are saying,’” she said. “If you can show the business impact of things, then you’re going to be taken more seriously.”

Deanna Lanoway, an HR executive consultant at consultancy People First HR Services, told HR Brew that it’s important for HR leaders to showcase how their function is central to the rest of the business. “You need to understand what the organization is trying to achieve and then step back and say, ‘Is this something we can enable with our current structures, processes, labor market?’”

Going forward, Gelsthorpe believes HR will be integrated into nearly every aspect of the business. “I see [HR] as integrating into every exec’s role. I see the people agenda as being so critical to business success that it almost becomes part of Steve’s role, or at least every one of our execs’.”

For the employees’ sake, here’s hoping Hafner and Gelsthorpe don’t duet on “Juice.”—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

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