How CHROs Can Effectively Partner Across the Business in 2021

2021 Survey Report


In 2020, senior HR leaders had a full plate of challenges -- from supporting a remote workforce and managing the economic impact of the pandemic to grappling with issues of racial injustice and the health and wellness of employees. Leaders across the C-suite also realized the impact of CHROs during a crisis and recognized that efforts viewed as traditional HR responsibilities in fact touched every area of the organization. The challenges of 2020 led to numerous productive discussions in which Evanta communities hosted 207 virtual events for 7,000 CHROs.  

This year’s Leadership Perspective Survey data indicates that CHROs remain focused on diversity and inclusion as a top priority. HR executives will also be managing return-to-work strategies and addressing employee mental health and wellness. The survey shows where CHROs have shared goals across the C-suite, leading to opportunities for collaboration and networking. 

Advancing DE&I Programs

More than 500 CHROs from Evanta communities around the world shared their views and priorities for 2021. Their top priority remains diversity, equity and inclusion -- the same as they reported in the fall of 2020. Several areas of focus have remained the same or shifted only slightly for HR leaders.

In early 2020 before the pandemic, creating a culture of inclusion was fourth on the priority list -- indicating that the events of last year completely shifted the environment for DE&I initiatives and created an opportunity for leaders to accelerate their plans. 

This year, we also looked for commonalities in CHROs’ specific goals for diversity and inclusion (81% indicated developing talent and skills) and the challenges they foresee in achieving them (33% reported the shifting landscape). 

Goals for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

81% Developing talent & skills

56% Improving business outcomes

35% Delivering and defining value

Challenges around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

33% Quickly changing landscape 

32% Company culture

30% Lack of resources

CHROs shared anecdotally that they would like to take their diversity programs to the next level: 

We are adding belonging to the discussion and going headfirst into that.” 

We want to focus on driving meaningful change demonstrated in our metrics and improvements in representation.”

We are offering more transparency around our metrics and would like to hear what others are doing to hold themselves accountable. We need to go beyond good intent.”

75% of CHROs said they wanted to hear strategies for diversity programs over execution (62%) or leadership (60%).

Developing Current & Future Leadership

Another top priority for HR leaders this year is developing the next generation of leaders at their organizations. Much like diversity and inclusion, leadership development and succession planning were among CHROs’ top  priorities for all of 2020. These are their goals and challenges: 

Goals for Current & Future Leadership

85% Developing talent & skills

52% Improving business outcomes

28% Delivering and defining value

Challenges around Current & Future Leadership

45% Quickly changing landscape 

38% Company culture

34% Lack of skills

CHROs told us their leadership and development concerns, including the following:

How do you show the improvements made around talent and succession management? We have success factors, but we don’t have technology around this.”

One of the challenges we have is how to help build skills around innovation and change management.”

We’re seeing movement in certain jobs, and I think that connects directly to DE&I. When those jobs are open, it increases opportunities for female and minority candidates to fill them.” 

As one CHRO noted, “This is also tied to employee experience.” Executives are interested in learning more about this topic from a strategic perspective (60%), and also from a leadership point of view (59%).

Influencing Employee Experience

Many CHROs are using employee engagement surveys to understand the sentiment of the workforce -- and to discover how employees are feeling after the past year of disruptive change. HR leaders are potentially looking through the employee experience lens to create return-to-work strategies, as well. As one HR leader asked, “Why do people go to the office? What compels them to come in?”

Goals for Employee Experience

72% Developing talent & skills

43% Delivering and defining value

42% Improving business outcomes

Challenges around Employee Experience

36% Company culture 

32% Lack of resources

30% Quickly changing landscape

Some topics that CHROs specifically want to explore on employee experience include: 

Mental health is very big -- it enables performance now.”

Managers who manage more remotely need to actively show employees empathy. They need to be action-oriented, not reactive, and build rapport in a virtual environment.”

How do we handle the new normal? We want to give more flexibility, but can’t really have everyone working remotely.” 

Senior HR leaders realize that at some organizations, work life will never be the same as it was. One CHRO said, “We have to build a new work life, so we will have to create a new employee experience in light of this shift.” 

What Lies Ahead

Across all of HR leaders’ top priorities for 2021, their primary goal is to develop talent and skills. Most often mentioned next is their objective to improve business outcomes. The common challenges are slightly more varied, but the two most often cited are the quickly changing landscape in which they are operating and their company culture.

Leaders across the C-suite increasingly understand how HR initiatives impact all areas of the business. A culture of inclusion and belonging impacts employee experience, and in turn, the organization’s ability to recruit and retain their employees. The issue of return-to-work strategies will influence company culture, employee experience, and recruitment across all roles and functions. As one CHRO said, “We are weaving experience into how to return to the office and bring back some choices.”

Since HR initiatives are critical to the business, CHROs have the opportunity to partner across the C-suite to achieve their objectives. It does not necessarily have to be with other specific functions, but could be more comprehensive cross-functional work. As one CHRO explained, “We have worked methodically to create a framework for work life in our company. Lots of different leaders gather in our future work life group to debate about this topic. We as HR steer the efforts, but we are joined by top management throughout the company.”

Human resources planning and strategy around the future of work ties to a plethora of critical business priorities: business transformation, cost optimization, and risk management, to name a few. These priorities suggest opportunities to partner with CIOs, CFOs, and even CISOs. 

The pandemic has transformed the future of the HR function. More importantly, the CEO and board view the CHRO’s role in business strategy in a completely different light, and that view is here to stay. According to Gartner’s 2020 Board of Directors Survey, the “workforce” ranked as the second most important priority heading into 2021, just behind “digital tech initiatives.” As CHROs continue to lead across the business, they have opportunities for their influence and initiatives to support the entire enterprise.

Based on more than 500 CHROs’ responses to Evanta’s 2021 Leadership Perspective Survey.

by CHROs, for CHROs

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