Interim chief human resources officers are becoming a more and more popular request in the world of private equity.
That’s no surprise, considering how effective an effective interim CHRO can be with crisis management, navigating mergers and acquisitions, setting up a human resources department from scratch and more.
“It’s a functional area that’s been historically overlooked,” BluWave co-head of Research and Operations Keenan Kolinsky says. “Private equity hasn’t viewed it as a critical function to drive value historically. But like we’ve seen over the last two years private equity is increasingly viewing human capital and HR as a value-creation driver.”
We’ll walk you through the benefits of an interim CHRO, what to look for when hiring and how to go through the entire process so you select the right one for your portfolio or private company.
Benefits of Hiring an Interim CHRO
Quarter after quarter, human capital accounts for the lion’s share of private equity activity in the BluWave Insights Report.
With so many important projects tied to talent, most companies can’t afford to be without a head of people for weeks, let alone months on end. That’s why an interim chief human resources officer can be a great option to bridge the gap.
“An interim CHRO is a seasoned executive that can come in, bring best practices to a growing middle-market company and help build a best-in-class HR function,” BluWave Co-Head of Research and Operations Scott Bellinger says. “This can range from talent acquisition, employee retention, benefits, employee handbooks and more.”
An interim CHRO can provide an unbiased view of your company’s HR practices, identify areas for improvement and recommend changes. This can be particularly valuable if your HR department has been struggling to keep up with the demands of a rapidly growing company.
“A lot of CEOs or founders have never known what good looks like as it relates to CHROs,” Bellinger says. “It’s important to make sure you have a great talent pipeline, great employees and that you’re training them properly. This allows the CEO to focus on commercial and operational initiatives and leave the other stuff to the CEO.”
The right person will also help companies that don’t have an existing structure implement a proper HR infrastructure.
“Most traditionally founder-led businesses don’t have PE-grade infrastructure in place for the company to prepare for growth,” BluWave Strategic Account Executive Hannah Welsh says. “In many circumstances, interim CHROs can be brought in to lay the groundwork for the right people processes.”
An interim CHRO should have strong leadership skills and be able to manage and motivate your human resources team.
This means clearly communicating not only within their own group, but also across departments.
When working for a portfolio company, the PE firm may also expect regular reports from the talent lead, almost acting as a second manager along with the CEO.
“To work effectively, they should also be a part of the executive team. They should be a thought partner, because human capital helps the business grow,” Welsh says.
Human capital resources accounted for half of 2022 initiatives – up 2 percent from the previous year – within the Value Creation portion of the BluWave Activity Index.
They should also have a track record of quickly identifying and solving complex HR challenges.
“You’re used to integrating companies. You’re used to hiring quickly. You’re used to speed,” Bellinger says of the ideal candidate.
Some HR-related issues a company may face include:
High employee turnover
Lack of organizational structure
Lack of diversity
Employee health and well-being
The ideal candidate should also fit in well with your company. Whether your team is laid back or more buttoned up, your head of HR needs to be able to relate to them.
“I would want to make sure I was very explicit in making sure I understand exactly what the roles and responsibilities are,” Bellinger says. “Make sure it’s something they can accomplish. If the interim CHRO is not very explicit in exactly what they want to get done, the PE firm is going to have a very short fuse.”
As you might have gathered from the other criteria, this position is anything but predictable. Select someone who can roll with the punches.
This includes the ability to quickly adapt to a company’s culture and management style, as well as handle unexpected situations such as a crisis or change in leadership. They must also be able to pivot their approach when necessary to remain aligned with the organization’s objectives.
Some examples may include leading a downsizing while minimizing negative impact on morale, or being able to shift focus to DEI initiatives in response to social and political changes.
Interim vs Full-Time CHROs
One of the main advantages of hiring an interim CHRO is flexibility. They can be brought in on a short-term basis to address specific needs, and then let go when they have been met.
This can be more cost-effective than hiring a permanent CHRO, or if your company is in flux and the future is uncertain.
You may end up hiring that same interim executive full-time, but by starting them on a temporary basis, you can “try before you buy.”
On the other hand, a permanent CHRO can provide continuity and stability for your company’s HR department. A long-term hire will also have more time to develop a deep understanding of your culture, processes and employees.
How to Find the Right Interim CHRO for Your Company
The “right” interim CHRO is going to be different for each company. It will depend on some of things mentioned above, such as culture, industry and other specific needs.
After identifying the criteria for the role you want to fill, cross-checking candidates with past work experience and references can narrow the field.
Fortunately, BluWave’s highly vetted network has already done that for you. We only admit experienced talent that has passed a rigorous pre-interview process and received positive references from the world’s leading PE firms.
When you contact us for a scoping call, we provide two or three PE-grade interim CHRO candidates, hand-picked for your exact situation, within a single business day. By jumping directly to the interview process, you’ll save weeks, if not months of searching.
“Our vetting process clearly surfaces whether a candidate will be a great resource for a company, and if not, we won’t waste their time with an introduction,” Welsh says.
Once you meet the candidate (or two or three) that’s best suited for your vacancy, it’s time for various members of your team to speak with them. This will give you a 360-degree perspective on their skillset.
You should also have a clear understanding of their availability and expected compensation. If everything lines up, it’s time to draft an engagement letter outlining expectations, pay and timeline. (When you work with BluWave, we take care of all this for you.)
Once you hire the right person, the next step is to onboard them effectively. Due to the selection process, they should already have a clear idea of expectations from day one, as well as the resources at their disposal.
“They’ve got to get up to speed very quickly,” Kolinsky says. “They need to explore what they have. What people, processes and technologies exist in this functional area, and how it can be improved and optimized.”
Hiring an interim CHRO can provide a range of benefits, but it is important to choose someone who fits within your company culture and has the right skills for your situation.
Interim leadership is consistently a top priority for private equity firms within human capital services. With such high demand, BluWave maintains a pool of experienced, vetted professionals – including interim CHROs – in the Business Builders’ Network.
Connect with our research and operations team to walk us through your specific project, and we’ll connect you in less than 24 hours with a short list of tailor-made candidates.
Whether going through an M&A, an internal crisis, a reorg or other situations that require a talent expert, here are some reasons private equity firms should consider temporary HR leaders.
Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness
A human capital leader has the opportunity to improve company operations for the short time they’ll be in their role. (Usually three to nine months.) Here are some ways they can do so.
Streamlining HR Processes
They can evaluate existing HR processes at a portfolio company, identify areas for improvement and implement changes to increase effectiveness. This may include automating repetitive tasks and standardizing processes across the organization.
For example: expediting a labor-intensive employee onboarding process with new software. They could also implement a standardized performance management system so that everyone understands how they’re evaluated.
Exit interviews help managers understand why employees leave and identify what contributes to a high turnover rate. This information can be used to develop retention strategies and improve employee engagement.
Here are some of the questions an interim CHRO might ask a portco employee during an exit interview:
What made you decide to leave the company?
Is there anything you disliked about working here?
Do you have any suggestions for how we can improve?
How was your experience with your manager?
Creating Employee Retention Programs
Retention programs address the specific needs of employees, such as recognition programs, professional development and the ability to work from home, even in a hybrid situation.
Employees may also be more likely to stay if they have access to department-specific job training.
HR leaders can also use engagement surveys and focus groups to identify problems ahead of time.
Identifying Key Drivers of Employee Satisfaction
Speaking of surveys and focus groups, they not only tell HR leaders what’s going wrong but also tell them what employees like about a company. This information can help create targeted retention strategies and improve employee engagement.
Here are some of the top areas of employee satisfaction an interim chief human resources officer will want to pay attention to:
Clear communication and transparency
Opportunities for growth and development
Recognition and rewards
Building a Positive Company Culture
Creating a positive company culture is no easy task, especially in the midst of a transition. That’s why it’s important to work with an interim CHRO experienced with tumultuous situations.
Besides paying attention to employee satisfaction, this person should be able to build consensus across teams.
“In a strong culture, employees feel valued,” according to Great Place To Work. “They enjoy at least some control over their jobs, instead of feeling powerless. Whether it’s by working from home, choosing their projects or trying out a new role, employees that feel valued and can make decisions achieve a higher level of performance.”
Providing Regular Feedback and Recognition
An interim CHRO can help managers to provide regular feedback and recognition to employees.
They can standardize feedback loops through surveys, one-on-one meetings, focus groups and other tactics. They should then be transparent about how they will use that information to improve the company.
It’s important to do this on a regular basis, and not as a one-off exercise.
Since this person will only be in their role for a few months, having monthly, bi-weekly or even weekly evaluations may make sense. Especially if they can develop a system that can be inherited by the person who will take on their role full-time.
An interim CHRO with experience in your industry can hit the ground running. Every business has a unique set of legal challenges, and you don’t want someone in the C-suite who has to learn on the job.
Here are some specific areas where a temporary CHRO can help with legal hurdles.
Reviewing and Updating Company Policies and Procedures
This ensures a company is compliant with all relevant laws and regulations, such as those related to labor, anti-discrimination and data privacy.
This should be done in collaboration with other executive team members as well as the legal team.
Conducting Compliance Audits
Compliance audits help identify areas of legal risk and recommend corrective actions.
The head of people can do this by developing an audit plan with a clear scope. They’ll then determine risks, gather evidence and analyze the information. In the end, they should prepare a report based on their findings.
They’ll also need to implement the plan quickly to minimize risks to the company.
Providing Training and Education
Another way to protect the company as well as equip employees is to educate them on compliance and labor laws.
Here are some resources an HR executive might use for this:
A comprehensive communication strategy informs employees about the transaction and its implications.
The head of HR may do this with a dedicated website, by holding town hall meetings or providing regular updates. They may also work with management to develop a Q&A document and establish an employee hotline.
Managing Cultural Integration
A seasoned executive will improve cross-company integration by addressing differences in culture, values and internal practices.
They do this with shared vision and values, aligning policies and procedures and promoting cross-functional collaboration.
Mary Anne Elliott, CHRO at Marsh, talked with HBR about the importance of working with other top executives on this.
“[These] meetings are a pragmatic activity. When you’re sitting with the CEO and CFO, there’s no place for academic HR,” she says. “It’s all about understanding what the organization needs to do to drive business performance and how to align those key variables.”
Assessing and Managing HR Risks
Some typical risks associated with a merger or acquisition are employee retention, legal compliance and benefits integration.
A capable temporary people leader will know how to do each of these things efficiently.
Coordinating Benefits and Compensation
Coordinating the integration of benefits and compensation packages for employees is also important.
Health insurance, retirement plans and stock options are just a few examples.
Reviewing existing benefits packages can help them identify gaps or redundancies.
Integrating HR Systems and Processes
Finally, an interim chief human resources officer can manage the integration of HR systems and processes such as payroll, performance management and employee data management.
The new, combined organization’s HR processes must be aligned with the needs of the business.
The IT department can help in this area by ensuring a smooth transition of data and systems.
Some roles are more crucial to a company’s success. The interim CHRO should identify these and devise a strategy to make sure the right talent is in place if someone leaves.
They can also identify potential leaders within the company who lack professional development.
Conducting Talent Assessments
Internal assessments help identify high performers. Since these are the people most likely to leave for another opportunity, it’s worth investing time in their development.
By aligning these evaluations with company goals and leadership needs, the employees will be better equipped for a new role.
This will open the door for them to be promoted sooner as they grow within the company.
Creating Development Programs
An interim CHRO can design development programs to help high-potential employees acquire the skills and experience needed to take on leadership roles.
These are some ways they might do that:
Professional development courses
Cross-functional team assignments
Building a Talent Pipeline
While it’s important to foster talent internally, an interim CHRO can also establish an external talent pool. Outside hires often help the company by bringing a fresh perspective to a challenging situation.
At BluWave, we have a highly vetted group of candidates for private equity, portco and privately owned company needs on standby. That way, we can provide you with two or three exact-fit resources within a single business day.
A comprehensive succession plan will not only focus on identifying, developing and retaining key talent, but also contingencies for unexpected departures.
Along with mentoring and coaching programs, regular performance reviews ensure that employees are ready to take on new roles when needed.
If your private equity firm or portco leader needs a human capital expert, BluWave has the world’s best temporary chief human resources officers on standby. And if you’re already in a talent role, we have tailor-made solutions to support you, too.
Everyone in our network has been rigorously evaluated while also receiving multiple recommendations from other leading PE firms.