22 Innovative HR Leaders to Follow

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22 Innovative HR Leaders to Follow

At the Academy to Innovate HR, we’re always on the lookout for HR leaders who are advancing Human Resources practices and making the world of work a better place.

After our successful ‘Global HR Tech Influencers to Follow’ list, we’re doing something different this time. For this version of our people-to-watch piece, we decided to share a group of 22 innovative HR Leaders that inspire us with their work.

Now, how did we decide whom to choose? Based on two simple criteria:

  1. What innovative HR project did this person launch in the company over the last three years?
  2. Is the company at least three years old?

Another, perhaps obvious, criterion was that the information about the innovative HR project or policy these HR leaders were involved in is publicly available.

We aimed to also include people who do great things in the HR domain that aren’t necessarily that well-known yet.

People in this article appear in alphabetical order.

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Here goes!

1. Marissa Andrada

Company: Chipotle Mexican Grill
Established: 1993
Role: Chief Diversity, Inclusion and People Officer
Innovative project: Waived the 15-hour minimum requirement for employees to qualify for Chipotle’s education programs

Marissa Andrada

Marissa is the Chief Diversity, Inclusion and People Officer at the American restaurant chain Chipotle. We’ve featured the company in our article about great employer branding examples to inspire you in 2022, so it really isn’t a big surprise that its CPO found its place on today’s list of innovative HR Leaders.

In fact, it’s one of the initiatives we mention in that article that made us think of Marissa. Chipotle is known for its focus on training and benefits (among other things), and Marissa helped waive the 15-hour minimum requirement for employees to qualify for Chipotle’s education programs. 

This is just one example of the many projects Marissa is involved in. A piece of advice for HR leaders who need to choose what initiative(s) to focus on: “HR leaders need to have clarity on values, with a deep understanding of who the company is and what it stands for as an organization.” 

2. Katarina Berg

Company: Spotify
Established: 2008
Role: CHRO
Innovative project: The HR of Things (HRoT)

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Katarina Berg

Katarina is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Spotify. The Swedish company is known for its many innovative HR practices. Examples include an internal talent marketplace and switching to a distributed-first model during the pandemic.

While Katarina is involved in many – if not all – of the innovative HR practices at Spotify, it’s actually a concept she came up with that we’d like to point out here; the HR of Things.

The HR of Things is the term Katarina uses to describe intuitive, fast-paced, business-relevant, and tech-driven HR initiatives that help the company keep learning faster than the world around it is changing. 

In other words, it’s about designing a whole new set of systems, a new way of doing things.   

3. Steve Browne

Company: LaRosa’s Pizzeria, Inc. 
Established: 1954
Role: Chief People Officer
Innovative project: His approach to HR

Steve Browne

Steve is the Chief People Officer at LaRosa’s, a pizzeria and Italian restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati area founded in 1954.

Steve is, as he puts it himself, ‘taking a much different approach to HR than many other opportunities I’ve had or that I see in most companies’. Take one look at his LinkedIn profile, and you’ll see that this is true.

In various well-written and very engaging articles, Steve regularly shares his thoughts on (traditional) HR topics. He does so in a refreshing manner, with an original (not to say innovative) point of view and always with a great deal of kindness.

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Here are some examples of articles that Steve has written that are worth checking out:

4. Anna Buber

Company: Zip Co
Established: 2013
Role: Chief People & Culture Officer
Innovative project: Miscarriage and abortion support policy 

Anna Buber

Anna is the Chief People & Culture Officer at Zip Co, a leading global, Buy Now, Pay Later company founded in 2013 in Australia. She was one of our guests on the podcast during season 1, and we had a fascinating conversation about HR in a fast-growing business

While there were many interesting things Anna mentioned, there was one initiative in particular that we found very powerful; the company’s global policy around post-miscarriage and abortion support for all of its staff regardless of tenure or their location across the globe.  

The company also called out to other organizations to follow them in this process. All of this is thanks to a hunch Anna had about the importance of bereavement for the healing of women and their partners during or post miscarriages.

Even though ‘innovative project’ might not be the right term to use here, it’s definitely an initiative that inspires. Or, as Anna described it: “That was probably one of the more impactful things launched in Australia from an employee perspective till today. And I think that this is where we changed the world.”

5. Katie Burke

Company: HubSpot
Established: 2006
Role: Chief People Officer
Innovative project: Culture and EX as a product

Katie is the Chief People Officer at HubSpot, a CRM platform that provides software and support to help businesses grow. The company was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2006.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Katie summed up a few reasons why candidates should consider HubSpot as an employer. One of them particularly stood out, especially in terms of innovation:

“We treat our culture like a product. Yep, our product team is world-class (they were just awarded the #1 product team by Comparably, so that’s not just my opinion), but we really do treat our employee experience like a product, iterating on it, adapting to feedback, and ensuring it meets the evolving needs of our candidates and employees.” 

In other words, approaching culture and EX as a product is pretty innovative, right?

6. Linnea Bywall

Company: Alva Labs
Established: 2017
Role: Head of People
Innovative project: Her work at Alva Labs

Linnea Bywall

Linnea is the Head of People at Alva Labs, a pre-employment testing software company launched in 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. She’s almost constantly innovating the way they ‘do HR’ at Alva, as well as the ways to bring objective and fair hiring to people’s attention.

An example of each, starting with HR at Alva Labs. One of the recent projects Linnea is involved in is a new concept they’re trying out in order to scale the company’s culture. The idea is to let people publicly commit (via a dedicated Slack channel) to how they are going to live the Alva values during the week to come.  

Onto Linnea’s innovative way of spreading the Alva message now. We’ve all heard about biases in the hiring process. That in itself is nothing new. Linnea, however, manages to bring this to people’s attention in a way that touches you. 

Every time she posts something about unfair hiring practices, the first sentence of her message hits. This, followed by a personal story & picture make for a powerful combination.

7. and 8. Deborah Caulet and Milica Radojević

Company: Blinkist
Established: 2012
Role: Deborah Caulet – Head of People Development
Role: Milica Radojević – Head of Talent Acquisition
Innovative project: Decentralized Autonomous Hiring©

Deborah Caulet
Milica Radojevic

Deborah and Milica work as Head of People Development and Head of Talent Acquisition at Blinkist, a ‘quick-hit nonfiction learning app’ company founded in Berlin in 2012. 

The company experienced rapid growth between 2017 and 2019, hiring 150 people with a talent acquisition team of just two people. The same two people who also had to manage the company’s employer brand and organizational development projects. 

Needless to say that something needed to happen if they wanted to successfully hire new people without going insane. This is where Deborah and Milica came in.

Together, they developed Decentralized Autonomous Hiring©, a recruitment operations model where hiring managers share a significant part of responsibility in the hiring process.

Put simply, instead of leading and coordinating every step of the hiring process, the recruiter acts as a sparring partner in Blinkist’s Decentralized Autonomous Hiring© model. They might assist in different stages of the process, but they don’t necessarily drive or participate in every stage of the process.  

As a result, candidates report that they are happy with the process, and 95% of hiring managers are highly satisfied with the support the TA team provides. 

9. Kris Franco

Company: LeanTaaS
Established: 2010
Role: Head of People
Innovative project: Transitioning to a flexibility-first model

Kris Franco

Kris is the Head of People at LeanTaaS, a company that develops software that increases patient access to medical care founded in 2010 in California (US).

In the summer of 2021, LeanTaaS announced that it was moving towards a ‘flexibility-first’ model. This enabled the majority of the company’s employees to decide:

  •  where they would like to live and work in the US and;
  •  if/when they want to come into an office.

The company’s flexibility-first model is different from the variations on a hybrid approach that other companies are introducing and has really set LeanTaaS apart with candidates. According to Kris, it helped them achieve 46% team growth last year

10. Jessica Hayes

Company: Whereby
Established: 2013
Role: Chief Operating Officer
Innovative project: Rethinking the employee experience as a subscription product

Jessica Hayes

Jessica currently works as the Chief Operating Officer at Whereby, a fully distributed video conferencing company founded in 2013 in Norway. Prior to her role as COO, Jessica was the VP of People at Whereby and a guest on our podcast All About HR.   

If there is one company that is truly innovative when it comes to HR it’s Whereby. Our conversation with Jessica uncovered a few great examples:

  • She compared ‘subscribing’ to a job with a wine subscription. Every single month an employee decides whether or not they want to continue subscribing because their values are aligned, and the pay is good. 
    • If you think about a job as that subscription product as an HR person, you can think like a product team and say we want to get feedback from our employees to see how we can improve this subscription service to make sure they don’t go to churn. 
  • In their T-shaped People Team nobody had a people background except for Jessica.
  • The company’s Progression Framework.

Jessica may be the company’s COO now, but she still shares a lot about the company’s innovative HR initiatives and (the legal implications of) remote work, so we highly recommend you follow her.

11. Jennifer Kim

Company: Startup Recruiting Bootcamp
Established: 2019
Role: Founder
Innovative project: Fixing the way tech startups hire

Jennifer Kim

Jennifer is Head of People and the founder of Startup Recruiting Bootcamp, a company that helps founders of early-stage companies improve the way they hire.

The People & Talent functions at startups have been neglected for a long time. As Jennifer puts it: “The standard playbook goes: let everything break, realize how badly this affects the ability to grow, then get stuck playing catchup and fighting fires forever.”

This is exactly what Jennifer helps startups with. She lets them approach People Ops as a critical business function that is just as important, intellectually rigorous, and creative as, for instance, Engineering or Growth. 

As such, she’s innovating the way hiring is being done (for far too long) in tech startups. 

What Are Innovative HR Leaders Working On

12. Ditte Marstrand Wulf

Company: Covetrus 
Established: 2019
Role: CHRO
Innovative project: Building a new HR strategy during a global transformation

Ditte Marstrand Wulf

Ditte is the CHRO of Covetrus, a global animal-health technology and services company headquartered in Portland, Maine.

Covetrus was born out of the merger of two other companies and their respective cultures. This was the reason that the entire company went through a global transformation. 

And so, one of the projects Ditte got to work on in her role as CHRO was building a brand new HR strategy – and team – during a period of global transformation and in a digital environment. Not an easy feat! 

If you want to hear how she went about this, you can hear it directly from her in this podcast.

13. Kristel Moedt

Company: People masterminds
Established: 2019
Role: Co-Founder
Innovative project: 1-page employment contract

Kristel Moedt

Kristel is a Chief People Officer and the Co-Founder of People masterminds, a company that helps fast growing startups & scale-ups create an innovative people & culture strategy that enables them to scale fast and strong. 

Prior to her role at People masterminds Kristel was Head of People & Culture at Tony’s Chocolonely, a chocolate company that wants to make all chocolate 100% slave free. 

During her time at Tony’s, Kristel worked (among other things) on the creation of a 1-page employment contract. This ‘ticket of trust’ as she puts it, contains the most important (legal) elements of an employment contract, such as the new hire’s name, start date, gross salary, confidentiality, expenses, and IP clauses, etc., and is presented in a playful way.  

This is just one example of what innovation in HR can look like, follow Kristel to get a steady stream of innovative approaches to ‘doing’ People & Culture in scale-ups.

14. Paul Norman

Company: MTN
Role: CHRO
Innovative project: EVP ‘Live Inspired’

Paul is the Group CHRO at MTN, a large company in the telecommunications and digital services space launched in 1994 in South Africa.  

As part of its ‘Ambition 2025’ strategy, MTN launched a new employee value proposition (EVP) called ‘Live Inspired’ early last year. According to Paul, the EVP was “crafted with a clear focus on the future and with the intention that it inspires people to think differently about tomorrow.”

MTN’s EVP consists of 4 pillars:

  1. Work with Meaning. This refers to approaching your work as more than just a job and aims to change the way people see work and create more empowerment for everybody to bring their best to work every day. 
  2. Connect to Develop. This pillar is based on the belief that being connected is the essence of human progress and development. 
  3. Thrive in Positivity. Here, the focus is on creating an inspiring environment.
  4. Grow with Purpose. This pillar is rooted in the belief that real growth is inspired by a purpose that advances the individual, company, and society as a whole. 

You can read more about MTN’s employee value proposition and the reasoning behind it here.

15. Lynne Oldham

Company: Stash
Established: 2015
Role: Chief People Officer 
Innovative project: Numerous at Zoom 

Lynne Oldham

Lynne is the Chief People Officer at Stash, a personal finance app that can make investing easy and affordable for millions of Americans. Prior to her current role at Stash, Lynne was the Chief People Officer at Zoom. 

During her time at Zoom, Lynne quintupled the company’s employee base and led to the highest engagement scores on record. When the pandemic hit, Zoom usage went from 10 million daily meeting participants to 300 million, a 30-times increase.

This meant that Lynne and her team had to be innovative and increase the employee headcount significantly while simultaneously moving the entire company remotely and meeting the needs of this skyrocketing demand.  

To hear more about how they did this, check out our podcast with Zoom’s Global Head of Talent and OD, Jodi Rabinowitz

Lynne’s new company Stash is scaling fast and has ambitions that go well beyond their incredible product growth, according to its Co-Founder and CEO Brandon Krieg. 

We can’t wait to see what magic Lynne is going to create this time.

16. Khalilah “KO” Olokunula

Company: TRU Colors
Established: 2018
Role: Chief People Officer
Innovative project: DIRTY HR

Khalilah Olokunula

Khalilah was one of our favorite guests on the All About HR podcast. She is the Chief People Officer at TRU Colors, a large for-profit brewery launched by rival gang members in 2018. The company is on a mission to stop street violence and unite communities across America.

While Khalilah and her team are doing a lot of innovative work, there is one concept in particular that I’d like to point out: Dirty HR.

Put simply, Dirty HR is a re-engineered approach to how you can build strategic systems and structures for your team and talent that are people focused, purpose-driven and profit aligned. 

It’s an acronym for:

  • D: Divergent. HR can no longer just be one thing (we saw that during the pandemic, HR had to become conflict resolution specialists, still needed to recruit, figure out how to make the hybrid workspace work, etc.).
  • I: Intentionality. How can we be intentional in what we do and what we create and shape, because intentionality helps us build the most impact.
  • R: Resilient. HR has to have an extreme bounce back.
  • T: Talent optimization strategy and assessments. Here, it’s about not just looking at what someone can do, but also about who they are.
  • Y: Your impact and processes. As Simon Sinek says: people don’t buy products, they buy your why. What is your why?

As Khalilah puts it herself: “Dirty HR sounds incredibly disruptive but HR done right is not from a book, it’s from trial, error, breakups and breakthroughs!” 

If you want to learn more about Dirty HR and how to get started with it, check out our podcast with Khalilah

17. Lars Schmidt

Company: Redefining HR
Established: 2013
Role: Founder 
Innovative project: Amplify Accelerator 

Lars Schmidt

Lars is a best-selling author, podcast host of the Redefining HR podcast, the Founder of Amplify, and many other things. Amplify is a company that helps other companies and HR navigate the new world of work. 

It’s almost unthinkable to share a group of innovative HR leaders without including Lars, whose personal mission is to accelerate innovation in HR. 

He does this in various ways, but the one that we’d like to particularly mention here is the Amplify Accelerator; an HR leadership development program and community for the next generation of people leaders.

18. Claude Silver

Company: VaynerMedia
Established: 2009
Role: Chief Heart Officer (CHRO)
Innovative project: Being the first Chief Heart Officer 

Claude Silver

Claude is the first ever Chief Heart Officer (CHRO/CPO) at VaynerMedia, a global creative and media agency founded in 2009 in New York.

Claude’s life purpose is ‘to be of joyful service and unlock emotional optimism in all’, and when you scroll through her LinkedIn, you’ll quickly notice that she’s doing exactly that in her role as Chief Heart Officer (which couldn’t be more fitting by the way). 

Every single thing she posts is infused with love and kindness, but she doesn’t shy away from being honest and addressing certain (workplace) issues at the same time.

Claude truly is an innovative HR Leader simply by living her life’s purpose. We highly recommend following her to ensure your weekly dose of kindness.

19. Tracie Sponenberg

Company: The Granite Group
Established: 1972
Role: Chief People Officer
Innovative projects: CPOHQ, Hacking HR, DisruptHR, HR Rebooted

Tracie Sponenberg

Tracie is the Chief People Officer at the Granite Group, one of the top 50 plumbing, heating, cooling and PVF wholesale distributors in the United States.

Apart from the great work she does at the Granite Group, Tracie is also very much involved in helping the HR community grow. 

As the Co-Founder of Disrupt HR, for instance, she created a place for HR professionals who are tired of the ‘old’ HR and ready to focus on the intersection of HR, tech, and culture. 

As a Founding Member of CPOHQ, Tracie offers a space for Chief People Officers to learn from each other, and as the Co-Founder of HR Rebooted, she is innovating the people business; changing the way HR is viewed by others and by itself.    

In other words, Tracie absolutely is an innovative HR Leader to follow.

20. Dena Upton

Company: Drift
Established: 2015
Role: Chief People Officer
Innovative project: Facilitating the company’s shift to digital first 

Dena Upton

Dena is the Chief People Officer at Drift, the world’s number 1 revenue acceleration platform, founded in 2015 in Boston. 

Dena is one of the people who facilitated the company’s shift to becoming a digital-first company. That basically meant doing a 180 because Drift was very much an in-office company pre-covid. 

One of the key pillars for Drift in successfully going digital first were the company’s rituals (which are sacred); Monday Metrics and Friday Show & Tell. 

During the former, high-level metrics are discussed in front of the whole company to ensure everyone in the organization has a fundamental understanding of these metrics.

During the Friday Show & Tell, 1 person in each department talks about a problem they encountered and how they solved it, there is an open mic for the executive team, and the whole company really gets involved.

To hear more about the other pillars that were important for Drift while going digital first, you can listen to this podcast with Dena.

21. Dieter Veldsman

Company: AIHR
Established: 2016
Role: HR and OD Trendspotter
Innovative project: Numerous future of HR/work-related projects 

Dieter Veldsman Profile Picture

Dieter is CHRO of the year 2021 and an HR & OD Thought Leader here at the Academy to Innovate HR. It’s hard to name just one innovative project Dieter is working on since thinking about and building the future of HR is at the core of what he does.  

Some of the many exciting projects he has been involved in are:

  • The development of an easy-to-use HR Career Path tool
  • The creation of the book ‘HR: The New Agenda’
  • Different types of HR Operating Models and their benefits & drawbacks
  • HR competency requirements to operate in a digital future 

What’s great about Dieter’s work is that he adds a co-creation element to a lot of his projects; he posts the results of a working session on his LinkedIn, for instance, asking for input and feedback. This often leads to valuable conversations. 

So, if you’d like to participate in shaping the future of HR – or simply join the discussion – we strongly suggest you follow him.

22. Daniel Waite

Company: Makeready
Established: 2016
Role: SVP, People & Culture
Innovative project: Adopting HR automation during Covid

Daniel Waite

Daniel is the SVP People & Culture at Makeready, a company specializing in the branding, design, & operations of hotels, restaurants, retail, & other experiential platforms founded in 2016 in Texas. 

He came on our radar, however, thanks to accomplishments in his previous role as Vice President People Operations at SH Hotels and Resorts, a hotel brand management company in the US established in 2012.

During the pandemic, SH Hotels was able to adopt HR automation to improve the hiring and onboarding process at several of its locations. 

Here are two examples of what this automation looks like:

  • People who interview at SH hotels take an assessment, and based on their responses, interview questions are pre-populated. This enables the interviewer(s) to approach the interview based on the candidate’s profile.  
  • To keep new hires engaged (and excited to get started) during the pre-boarding period, Daniel and his team also created a self-paced program to help new hires learn about the company.

While these automation examples in itself are not necessarily innovative, the fact that a company undertook these – and other – efforts during a time of (huge) uncertainty and stress is.

On a final note

As you can see above, HR leaders around the world are involved in many inspiring initiatives to improve HR practices and we hope you’ll be inspired by these wonderful people starting today. And if you feel we missed someone, please let us know!

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