The Evolving CHRO Role: Skills, Impact & Clichés

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The Evolving CHRO Role: Skills, Impact & Clichés

Welcome to another exciting episode of All About HR! This is the series for HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organization and learn about the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders.

What does a CHRO need to do to be successful?  In this episode of All About HR season 2, we sit down with Narelle Burke — CHRO at Kantar APAC Insights — to discuss how partnering with the CFO and CEO helps CHROs become better business leaders.

Narelle is an experienced CHRO and is responsible for developing and executing a strategic human capital plan at Kantar. She is known for her work in organizational leadership, transformation, and change.

In this video, we’ll discuss: 

  • The most important partnerships for CHROs
  • Crucial skills for CHROs
  • Executive development for CHROs

Watch the full episode to learn how CHROs can develop their skills to become great business leaders.


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Narelle Burke: And I think, I think the reason is that if you’re in an HR role, and you don’t have that partnership, then you don’t have a seat at the table, because you’re not impacting on business decisions, and you don’t have an equal voice. And I think the strongest organisations are those that balance people and performance or performance and people. They are absolutely level in terms of the types of decisions and the input into the business. So I think the best organisations are those that do form that strong partnership. And so I think it’s less the ability of developing the relationship and going, do you understand how the business makes money? And are you best friends with the CFO? And if not, why not? And how do you start to open that conversation up?

Neelie Verlinden: Hi, everyone, and welcome to a brand new episode of All About HR. My name is Neelie, and for today’s episode, I get to sit down with Narelle Burke. Narelle is the CHRO at Kantar APAC insights. And I for one cannot wait to get started with our conversation. Before we do so however, as always, if you haven’t done so yet, subscribe to our channel, hit that notification bell, and like this video.

Neelie Verlinden: Welcome to another episode of All About HR. Now, let me welcome Narelle to the show. Hi, Narelle. How are you?

Narelle Burke: Hi Neelie, I’m great. Delighted to be here chatting with you.

Neelie Verlinden: Yes. And I’m delighted to have you here with us. So if I may ask, Narelle, from where in the world are you joining us today?

Narelle Burke: So I am in the fabulous country of Singapore, which is wonderful, always hot and always lovely.

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Neelie Verlinden: Okay. Okay, nice. So before we dive into the conversation, Narelle, for the people in the audience that don’t know you yet, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work that you’re doing at Kanatar APAC insights?

Narelle Burke: I can. So I’ve been at Kantar for about seven years. And the role I’m in is CHRO for APAC insights. So we have about 3000 people. And my role is really to partner alongside our CFO and our CEO to help the business run more effectively through our talent, which is one of the most important parts of our business.

Neelie Verlinden: Thank you for that. And I am particularly excited to talk about this topic with you, Narelle. Because it is also one of the main themes or trends that we identified in our HR trends for 2023, the evolving role of the CHRO. However, this doesn’t mean that this will only be an interesting conversation for people who are already in that role, or who are Chief People Officers, because we will touch on various elements that are, I think, definitely very interesting for everybody working in the people fields. And perhaps we can start with why is that relationship that you have with the CFO is so important for your success as a CHRO?

Narelle Burke: Yeah, it’s really important. So if I think about running a professional services business, and that’s what we are, the major cost in our business is your people cost and as a part of that any decision that HR makes, or finance makes, has an impact on people. And so particularly within our organisation, we established early on that the three legs of the stool, your CEO, your CFO and your CHRO, were absolutely essential to all decisions you make. Not just people but business based and finance based decisions as well. And so that partnership and ensuring you’re in sync is really important. We had a change in CFO just over a year ago. And part of that was helping her to understand the business. And so when it opened up, post COVID environment, one of the things we said is: “It’d be great to get out to the business to understand what’s changed, see how our people are evolved, and how the business is performing”. And we looked at it from the perspective of people and performance, HR and finance and going out in partnership. And so we’ve been doing that over the last four to five months. And importantly, both of us go into it understanding what’s happening in the business, we can make key decisions, we can inform on strategy and people and finance decisions. And you have that partnership in the room to be able to do that. So we talk about the metrics and why they’re important for HR and finance. We talk about the management reporting, and how we balance that out. We talk about the resourcing needs and how we can support that. And so everything we do is in partnership, which is really important. And going out to the markets has been an extension of that. And the impact it’s had is that we both go in with a consistent understanding of the market, their needs from a people and performance perspective, so that we can help to support our business leaders in those markets to make better decisions.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, when you, when you talk about it like that, Narelle, it makes a lot of sense to me to have that partnership. And I remember that you mentioned, at the start of our conversation, that there’s also this relationship between CEO, CFO and CHRO. So the three of them, and I will get back to that later in our conversation. Perhaps we can take a look as well at the more practical aspects of this relationship. And so, how does this partnership – how does that impact the decision making that happens within the organisation in the boardroom?

Narelle Burke: Yeah, absolutely. And I can do it from a number of lenses. So one is in terms of setting strategy and budgeting. One is how we operate across the region and then how it impacts on markets. So from a strategy and budgeting perspective, which we’re working through at the moment for the next 12 months, it means that when we’re putting down our plans and the business objectives that we want to achieve, we’re looking at it from a very balanced point of view. So we’re looking at it from a market lens and what the market can actually deliver in terms of top line growth. But we’re looking at whether we have the talent and the ability to deliver on that. What’s the commercial requirements? What are the capabilities that we need? Do we have the ability to be able to support that? And so our strategy and our budget also has a very detailed people plan that sits behind that, which means that we’re thinking about strategy in action, we’re thinking about the implications of all of the decisions we make, and what are the – not only the financial, but the people implications and how we can support that. So it supports it from a strategic perspective in that all of our planning or budgeting is aligned between HR Finance, and the business. From a regional perspective, any decisions we make on headcount hiring, utilisation, the ability to manage our people and our attrition, all of those areas, come back into us making joint decisions. So if you were looking at: do you need to hire more people? You’re looking at, well, how is the market utilised? You know, what type of pipeline? Do they coming in? Do we have the people to be able to deliver on that? Or do we need to support it in a different way? You look at it from an organisational design perspective, which is do we have the right organisation designed to support the growth that we need? If not, how do we review that? How do we review the spans and layers in the way that we deliver work? And that all has financial as well as HR and talent implications. Or if we’re looking at revenue growth and client growth, we’re looking at, well, what are the capabilities that we need to do that? And do we need to hire or develop? So every decision that we make at the regional lens has either a finance or a people component to it, and they both impact on each other. And at a market lens, it means that we’re united, we’re in sync, we’re doing principle based decisions on how we’re trying to support the growth. And we’re aligned whenever we have those conversations at a market level to support them.

Neelie Verlinden: Fantastic. I really like how you gave us an idea here from different lenses, because there are of course, different lenses that you have to take a look at, or through, when you are doing this in a partnership. Yeah, I think, Narelle, for those in the audience who perhaps don’t have that relationship yet. And they would really like to start building on it. What can you tell them about that? How did you go about building this relationship with the CFO? Maybe you can give some advice, or maybe have some tips that you can share with people about that?

Narelle Burke: Yeah. So I think this has been my standard way of operating for quite a period of time in partnering roles. And I think, I think the reason is that, if you’re in a HR role, and you don’t have that partnership, then you don’t have a seat at the table, because you’re not impacting on business decisions, and you don’t have an equal voice. And I think the strongest organisations are those that balance people and performance or performance and people, they are absolutely level in terms of the types of decisions and the input into into the business. So from my perspective, it has been acknowledging that and wherever you can, making sure you understand the CFOs role, how does the business make money? What are they trying to achieve? What are the objectives that they’ve got in place? And how do they impact on the people side of the business. And if you understand that, then you can map it back and go: “This impacts on people, these are the inputs I need to have. This is how it helps you to deliver on these objectives. This is the role that I can play in supporting you so that we’re aligned and supported”. And it’s not just a finance directive. It’s a business decision, which impacts on finance, and people. Therefore, you know, we’ve got a partnership and how we work through it. And I think where you develop those partnerships through a sense of mutual accountability, and supporting each other and wanting to work together to support the business, it’s a much healthier relationship because you’re helping each other out and it doesn’t become a adversarial or one sided. Where I’ve seen it not work is where finance decisions have a significant impact on people and you don’t realise it until it happens, or where the people decisions are put at the forefront, and you end up with unprofitable and unsustainable businesses. And so I think the best organisations are those that do form that strong partnership. And so I think it’s less the ability of developing the relationship and going, do you understand how the business makes money? And are you best friends with the CFO? And if not, why not? And how do you start to open that conversation up?

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Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I think that is a really good point. I think what could be an issue is that it’s not that they do not have the capability or the knowledge, but it’s more about, I think, the mindsets or the confidence, and the ability to make sure that that comes across as well, in the boardroom, for instance. So I think it’s perhaps more there that the challenge lies. So I think what I’m trying to get at here is what kind of skills, in your opinion, come in handy here for CHROs? So yes, I mean, an obvious one that I think we have touched upon a little bit already, would be business acumen. But I mean, what other things would you say are very important? Also, based on your own experience, of course.

Narelle Burke: Yeah. So the first one is business acumen, you need to understand how the business makes money. You also need to understand the financials, so you need to be able to read a P&L. You need to understand what are the financial metrics that the business is going to going to run. I think the other piece is, what do you bring to the table in terms of that. So if I think about my role, you know, what is the type of data, reporting, workforce planning that can help to support that as well. So it’s understanding the business, the financials, the metrics, the P&L that you need, but also being able to bring data and data decision, data driven decision making to the table. So to me that is foundational, you need to be able to offer something. I think the second thing that I would say is: believe in the role that we play! So I think over the years, I’ve heard HR needs the seat at the table, and I’m like, hell no, pull that seat up, have a seat at the table, trust that your role is important and understand the value you create. And if you can’t articulate that, then go and figure out how you can articulate that. And how do you articulate it in a way that makes sense for the business? What drives business performance, through the people agenda? And I think that’s, I think that’s really important. Because if you don’t believe the role we have is valuable, then why are they going to believe it? And if you can’t articulate it, how are you going to explain to them the value that you bring to the role. So there’s, there’s the second piece there. And I think the third piece around it, is really around – what I’ve heard, and what frustrates me is that HR is the soft side of the business. And I’m like, if it was that easy, and it was soft, then we wouldn’t have so many people trying to figure it out. So what we do is not soft, it is just not as easy to measure at times in terms of the value that it creates. It doesn’t mean it’s less important, it doesn’t mean that it’s not critical to business’ success, it just means it’s more challenging to measure exactly how it impacts on the bottom line. So if you’re thinking about culture, there’s plenty of, you know, consultancies out there that will say the importance of culture, you are the guardians of the culture. If you think about capabilities, and you go into business, the majority of businesses right now are struggling with the capabilities they need now, and in the future, fundamental to driving business value and performance. If you think about engagement, absolutely fundamental to driving performance, particularly in a hybrid environment. And if you think about any other dimension, whether it’s productivity, it is all about people, particularly in a people based business. So at the end, the strategic things that you drive in these roles are fundamental to business success, and have a fundamental role on business value. You just need to be able to articulate that and it’s slightly harder than the numbers sometimes. So I would come back to, you knoe, you absolutely need to believe in yourself. You need to have the business acumen. But you also need to ensure you’re driving the right things that impact on business performance.

Neelie Verlinden: Yes. I mean, I, I love that, what you’re saying and also believing in your role. I mean, that is such an important one. So this will bring me to a second point in a bit, but I was talking about this conversation that we were going to have today with a colleague here at HR and he actually mentioned something about how at some point if you are in a position of a CHRO or Chief People Officer that rather than thinking vertically about the, let’s say, the HR organisation within the company, you really need to actually shift your thinking to a horizontal business way of thinking. And so he was sharing with me how he believes that that is very important. What are your thoughts on this?

Narelle Burke: I think, like, I mean, I don’t disagree. But if you ask any business leader, do they care how HR is organised and what they call themselves? And, like, I mean, you figure that out, you’re the function, you figure out how you want to be set up, how you want to be organised, and how you want to drive things. If I come back to what I think really makes a difference is: are you impacting on the business outcomes? And can you clearly see that? And are you driving value through that? And if you’re helping the business to solve their biggest issues and helping to drive value, I’m not sure that they’re interested in how you’re organised. What they want is to be easy to work with, is that you understand what they’re trying to achieve. And that you can deliver value as needed. So I don’t disagree with this thinking from a functional perspective. But from a business lens, I would say I’m not sure that they’re that interested on how we’re organised.

Neelie Verlinden: So following on this when we talk about skills that are important for CHROs, Chief People Officers, what are your thoughts on executive development for CHROs? And I am asking this because this is something that is pretty common for other C suite roles, like for instance, the CFO, but there is not really that much focus on this yet for CHROs. So yeah, what are your thoughts on that? Executive development for CHROs.

Narelle Burke: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question. And I don’t think we spend nearly enough time in that space as well. I think we’re busy developing everyone else. I think, you know, for CHROs, or for any senior HR role, I think you have to be a business leader first. You’re a business leader, who specialises in talent and people that that’s what you do. But at the heart of it, you have to be a good business leader, you need to be able to contribute to conversations that are quite often outside of your area of expertise, but they have a fundamental impact on culture or design or leadership. So I think in terms of development, you need to remain current with business events and what’s happening. You need to understand what’s happening in the wider – like, right now, you needed to understand what was happening in with COVID, you need to understand what’s happening in Europe and North America right now in terms of the macro economic situation. So you need to be reading like a business leader. And I think that is really, really important. You need to read the Financial Times or whatever is the the equivalent in your markets. I think the second thing that I would say is that, depending on the organisation you’re in, you need to ensure that you’ve got a handle on the most important needs at that time. So if you’re going through – we’re owned by private equity – if you’re owned by private equity, do you understand how private equity works and the types of decisions they make? What are the implications likely to be on leadership? If you’re divesting or you’re doing M&As you need to understand how that works. If you’re going through a reshaping of the business, you need to understand org design. So I think there are some core HR fundamentals depending on what life stage your businesses at, and what’s critical, because it’s not the same for everywhere. Some will be an AR focus, some will be an OD focus, some will be more around mergers and acquisitions and the heavier stuff. And then underneath that, you need to be a really good leader. And what I mean by that is you need to be strategic in your thinking, you need to be able to deliver results, you need to be able to understand change in alignment and how that works. You need to be able to have really good interpersonal skills and be inclusive and diverse in that thinking. So I think there are different areas that CHROs need to look at which are from a business lens, from a functional and technical lens, as well as from a leadership lens. And then the thing that I would underpin it is, I would say that the the good CHROs and those that read widely as well. So I think we’re in one of those fortunate roles where we see across the business, and we see connections, and we see alignment, and we see opportunities, because we are a business leader sitting across everything. And so I think the benefit of reading widely and reading across your industry and adjacent verticals, is quite often you see patterns or connections or things that others may miss because they’re more specialist in what they’re Looking at? So I’d say that’s the other thing for CHROs, is how are you broadening your knowledge? How are you bringing value through the things you read to the business leaders who support as well?

Neelie Verlinden: Yes. And I think what comes to mind as well is: yes, they see across the entire business but they also see beyond that into thewider society. And I think we see this more and more. And I think this is also what you were touching on when you said earlier that we need to stay up to date with current events. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really beautiful about this role, actually, it’s that it’s also linked to what is going on in the world outside of the organisation. And how is that linked to what we are doing as a business? Yeah, I mean, I think I just think that this is a yeah, very exciting role. Oh, one more question before we’re going to slightly change tack, Narelle, but what would you say is the biggest lesson that you learned when you first moved into a CHRO role? And I know that this has been a while for you, because you have been in this, this kind of roles for quite a while already. But what would you say is the biggest lesson that you learned?

Narelle Burke: So I think the interesting thing about moving into roles like these is that they’re normally bigger in scope. And so that ability to – its ability to leverage and scale right, so you start off with one market, you start off with multiple markets, you probably go to, you know, a number of different markets, or regions before you end up doing either global or broader regional roles. And I think the first time you go into these roles is knowing what you need to know and what you don’t. So because when you’re, when you’re in market or smaller roles, you’re across everything, you understand what’s happening, you know the people, you know the business, you have an intimate knowledge of how a market works. And I think the further you progress is really understanding what are those things you absolutely need to know? And what are those things where you can get access to it through the people that support you in the teams that you work in. So I think that’s one of the important lessons. And we say that for our managers as well. The bigger the roles, and the broader your roles you take on, you cannot know everything, nor should you. But you need to be able to know those things that are critical to business success and stay up to date with them. And you will go through a period of time where you’re like: “I’ve no control, I don’t, like, what’s happening? Am I across it? Do I know why on earth are they doing that over there? How did I not know about that?” And the reality is you won’t, and you need to be comfortable with that. But you do need to know, you need to be able to get the answers when you need it. And I think that’s one of the big things is, every market particularly I’m in Asia Pacific, at some point in time, one of the markets will have something that’s going on that is to do with the social environment, or the political or the economic environment, and you need to be able to respond, but you need to be able to do that in a way where you can confidently get the answers from your team when you need to. You don’t need to be across everything. You can’t be.

Neelie Verlinden: No. Oh, yeah. Well, that’s, that is a great thing to remember. Thank you so much for sharing that. All right, we have been talking about the evolving role of the CHRO. And then there is this other development that we are occasionally seeing now. And it’s something that I personally am quite excited about. And that is the fact that we see that CHROs, they are now moving into different roles, not necessarily always linked to the people field. So what we see for example, is that CHROs are taking on diverse portfolios, like the CHRO at Old Mutual, who is also now heading up their group strategy function as well as the HR function, and then there’s Nestle’s CHRO, that’s also responsible for some other functions such as Business Services. And I think perhaps the most striking example was that the former CHRO of Unilever, Leena Nair, that left to become the CHRO of I believe Chanel. Now a first question about this, I think ,Narelle, is: do you believe that stories like these will attract more non traditional talent to HR?

Narelle Burke: I think that’s a really interesting question. I haven’t actually thought about it a huge amount. So I think, I think it’s an interesting development. I think it’s a sensible development. And potentially it may attract more people into it. I think being in HR is a conscious choice. So if you talk to a lot of CHROs who have come up through their roles, at some point in time, I would place a bet that the majority of us have been asked to take on other things. Whether it’s been different types of agreements, negotiations, setting up different businesses, other functional roles, which might be broadening out to communications or marketing or other roles that you might might want to take on. And I think the question comes back to is: why are you in HR and what do you want to do? And is the CHRO the role you really want? Or do you have aspirations as a business leader? And I think you end up with quite divergent people at the top, those who are deeply passionate about it want to stay in it, because it’s what they absolutely value, and those who have higher aspirations and want to see where the roll can take them and go into business leader roles. And I think those paths are both, you know, absolutely right. I think what I’m delighted about is that people are starting, and boards are starting to see the value that HR brings to a business. And that can only be good because the things we look after are things that are fundamental to sustainably growing good businesses over time. And so if they’re recognising that, I think it’s great. My hope is that they put the right support around it to make sure those people survive and thrive in those roles. When given the opportunity. I’d love to see more of these roles on boards as well, because I think it’s a critical gap in succession talent leadership, is having voices that actually understand how it’s done right.

Neelie Verlinden: 100%. And I think that hasn’t gotten any easier over the past few years. So I completely agree with you on that. And coming back to that question, I think it’s a really good point that you’re making that yes, the people that have their hearts completely in that people function, they will probably remain there. And then there are others that might move into a different type of role. I do believe, however, that CHROs, that they are great potential candidates for these different kinds of roles, because they understand or in an ideal world, they understand every single aspect of the business. And they have a really, really broad knowledge of both the business side of the company, as well as the people side. And I think that is a magical combination. And I think that is also what makes them potentially fantastic candidates. Yeah, for other roles in the C suite. Anyhow, now, Narelle, one of my favourite parts of the podcast is the part where I get to ask my fabulous guests, you in this case about what they believe to be the biggest cliche that exists about HR. So yeah, that’s the first one I’m going to start with.

Narelle Burke: So I think the term, there’s so many, there’s so many. So the one that comes to mind is that HR does the soft stuff. And it drives me nuts. Because when I look at it, there is nothing easy or soft about – people are complex, people are deeply human, and, you know, are flawed human beings, right. So you think about everything that happens out in the world around you, and everything that comes into the office that you’re expected to be able to deal with, and the ability to align people, to drive them, to support them, to engage them, to nurture them. You look at that, and you go: “Now, how is that soft?” It is fundamental to business performance. And I think that is I think it’s cliched, I think it’s outdated. And I think organisations that don’t understand the value of their HR teams either need to do work on their internal branding to show the value or just shouldn’t be in leadership. It is such a core fundamental of the role and we still have a long way to go to do it well.

Neelie Verlinden: Nice one. Yeah. Very, very nice one. Thank you. Thank you for that. And then the very last thing I’m gonna ask you Narelle is if you would like to share with us an epic win and an epic fail. Now we’ve had all sorts of those, we’ve had personal ones, professional ones, combinations, anything really that you feel comfortable sharing with. So yeah, perhaps, yeah, we can go to that.

Narelle Burke: So I think an epic fail, I would go,  I would go back to earlier on in in my career. I think that the ability to do broader leadership roles depends on your ability to be able to manage yourself, and manage your time, and be effective around that. And early on in my career, I would have been in my mid 20s, and I was taking on broader roles and I could not manage my time, let alone manage myself, let alone deliver on stuff. So I was too nice, over committed to staff, failed to manage that, and ended up in a situation where it was it was quite damaging for me because I had missed some key deadlines. There was a credibility gap there and so, you know, that epic fail with a leader who happened to believe me, believe it or not, I went on to a time management course, I you know, figured it out. And now I have one of the – I think it’s a fairly phenomenal system, which means no one would ever say that now. It doesn’t come naturally, it was a lot of hard work. I got into a lot of trouble early career around that. That is probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken through the years. If you want to be good at managing teams and managing businesses you need to be really good at managi ng yourself and holding yourself to account. So that’s, that’s an epic fail and happy to share more on that. I think in terms of an epic win, I would have to say, you know, taking on Global Inclusion, Diversity at a time where it was, you know, the George Floyd incident had just happened. It was absolutely a challenging time in terms of companies, and being able to actually cite, you know, clear action that you’re taking and policy. I do not recommend taking on a global I&D role at a time of immense societal shifts, and changes, and incredible tension. And I have to say that the support that I got through that, it helped us to set up a more sustainable framework around how we look at inclusion and diversity, it enabled us to really look at what action we were taken in to put voices behind that. And it was so ensured that as an organisation, we were globally balanced in, not just having an Anglo view, Anglo-Western view of what we were doing across the company, that we were being nuanced in terms of the local markets. And we’ve got a fabulous, you know, I’ve let go of that portfolio. And we have a fabulous new leader who’s in there. And I think a lot of the work that we did early on has helped to set that up in terms of the focus that we’re doing, that I think taking that on at that time, and helping the company to move and navigate through that was incredibly challenging, but also a really good win for us, for our people, and for the communities we work in as well.

Neelie Verlinden: Wow. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing those, I think both are great examples, actually. Because I think the beauty of what we call a fail or an epic fail often is that every time that something like that happens, there always is this little seed for growth or improvement. So actually, I don’t think that such a thing as a fail really exists. And that is, I think, a really beautiful example, what you were saying there about, yes, how it was, of course, very tough the situation and the environment in which you were starting this initiative. And as for the epic win, I can imagine that at the time, it probably didn’t really feel  like a win. But yeah, thank you. Thank you so much for having shared such a powerful example with us. And thank you very much as well, Narelle, for this fantastic conversation. And thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed it. 

Narelle Burke: Absolutely. 

And thank you everyone for tuning in once again to an episode of All About HR. I really hope that you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. And if you haven’t done so yet, subscribe to our channel. Hit that notification bell and share this episode with a friend, a colleague, or a family member. Thank you very much and goodbye!

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