This is part 1 of my interview with Jason about his journey to the CEO chair and the progression of the CHRO role. Look for part 2 next week.
Jason Hanold is the CEO and co-Managing Partner at Hanold Associates, a retained HR executive search firm focused on recruiting Human Resources officers and Diversity & Inclusion leaders. They have a stellar list of clients, including the NFL, Domino’s Pizza, Under Armour, Patagonia, Gucci, Kohler, REI, Kellogg, and many others.
I wanted to know: How did a recruiter with a background in HR became the CEO of a firm that recruits chief human resources officers (CHROs)? I also asked his perspective about how the CHRO role has evolved over the past 10 years and what CEOs today are expecting from them. His answers are enlightening.
Did you always want to be a CEO or did you fall into it as many do?
“No, I never really wanted to be a CEO. I always wanted to just recruit, because I loved it. But then over time you think about the ways you’d do things. For example, the way you’d model and build teams to be a better recruiter in search engines. Then all of a sudden you find yourself as a CEO.
Being a CEO has allowed me to still practice my craft and lead through example. I try to role model what I’d like to see in the younger recruiters who are coming up with their own experiences. So, it wasn’t a goal to be a CEO per se, but it was just kind of my love of the craft – that’s how I fell into it.”
What has surprised you most about the role? Did anything feel really different than you anticipated when you got in the chair?
“What surprised me most and what I’ve enjoyed the most is the freedom to make nuanced decisions that best suit a client or a business scenario that comes our way. I don’t answer to a private or public board, so it’s incredibly rewarding to remain agile, to flexibly live in time with the markets and with our client needs, and to be able to make those decisions as we go. That’s as opposed to being kind of hand tied with governance protocols set by other people who maybe weren’t close to the clients and the markets that I had to follow. It’s wonderful to be able to build a team that is not just about diversity in terms of representation, but a collective team of diverse people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and different global regions of our country and planet. It’s great to see how that really comes together, working with people that you genuinely like, who are good people.
I worked in a couple of organizations where I took the long way from the elevator to my office just to avoid folks. So, I appreciate that freedom as CEO to set the tone and tenor for your culture, and realize that whoever you add to the organization equals your next iteration of your culture, and so on. When we’re considering hiring anyone into the firm, we always ask: Do we like that version of us that we become once this person is added to us? It’s much like a scientist views a culture growing in a petri dish. What grows from that culture in the petri dish is informed by what you add to it, and so that’s the way I think of cultural fit and how we continue to grow our firm. That’s a wonderful freedom to have as CEO.”
Is there anything you wish you’d experienced or studied before becoming a CEO?
“Yeah, I think there’s a depth of analytics that goes with the financial acumen. That wasn’t my background, and that’s certainly not my expertise. Now we’re healthy and doing incredibly well at Hanold Associates, but I always wonder. It’s always that fear of ‘I don’t know what I don’t know.’”
Yes, and that’s always true. Even after 30 years, I can tell you, you always wonder what you don’t know. My approach to the CEO role is paranoid optimism.
“Yes, that’s right, and I also use that as fuel to keep learning and growing. I feel like at 52 years old that I’m more curious and learning more than I did when I was 10. That’s a good thing, I suppose. I use equal doses of paranoia and insecurity to fuel that and ensure that I am learning what I should be learning. That’s more out of a responsibility I feel to my colleagues and their families. I know that I’m responsible for providing well for them, and that’s where that comes from.”
I noticed you’re working on an advanced degree, is that correct?
“Yes. I know it kind of sounds ridiculous. I have a student ID card at 52, but I still can’t bring myself to get the 10% student discount if you show your student ID card at the movies!”
What’s that program around and why do you think it will be helpful to you?
“It’s the University of Pennsylvania Chief Learning Officer program that leads to a doctorate in education. Fundamentally the content is about how organizations close their talent gaps as they’re changing, transforming, growing, or reconfiguring. The magic of this is you have people from all over the world who come together in a relatively small cohort. It involves not only chief learning officers and heads of HR but also non-profit leaders and others. The head of learning development and leadership growth at GE is an alum of the program. We also have a Rear Admiral in the Navy who’s responsible for all the Navy’s learning and training. The head of NATO’s training is also in the program.
The reason I am in the program is to bring some science into what I do. For example, recently I was at Major League Baseball headquarters with Rob Manfred, the Commissioner, and Dan Halem, the Deputy Commissioner. Before that we were with Roger Goodell and his crew at the NFL. We just wrapped up two searches with him. When you’re advising folks like that, who are successful in their own right, I feel it has to be more than my intuition and perhaps wisdom over the years. I want to ensure that I have the right frameworks today, which I get from an advanced degree program, and bring them into the art of what I do as an executive search consultant and recruiter in the eyes of the clients that we’re serving.”
I think that’s particularly interesting. As I understand it, you focus mostly on the CHRO/HR leadership area. Is that fair?
“Yeah. That’s correct.”
How do you see that CHRO role changing in organizations today? What are CEOs looking for now that’s different from 10 years ago?
“Well, the good news is the expectations for this role are much higher than they were 10 years ago, and that’s in the eyes of the CEO. I remember in my early days, sometimes I might be doing a CHRO search while the company concurrently had a CFO search going on. I could tell that the CEO had higher expectations for the CFO search in terms of the caliber of my candidates. He wanted a bigger, broader business leader for the CFO role, with an eye towards succession.
I’m truly pleased to report today that I have more and more conversations about our CHRO candidates being a potential successor to the CEO, with the right experiences and rotation. Board members and executives committees are also catching on to this.
It starts with the candidate’s business acumen, with their lens. The people I might put into a role today will have perspectives on the business beyond just people implications. In the past, an HR person who served on the executive committee would remain relatively quiet unless something HR-related came up, such as benefits or hiring. Today, they’re weighing in on all topics. I heard it from the NFL when we did their CHRO search. They wanted a CHRO who could be a potential successor to the commissioner’s office. That’s what they see in Dasha Smith who they hired. That just wasn’t a common conversation 10 years ago.”
I think more CEOs should come out of the CHRO spot than sales, which is the more common route today. How does a CHRO get business experience in companies that view them as compliance only and won’t offer those opportunities?
“We have a couple of influences that are helping to propel this. In years past, if an HR person had an advanced degree, it tended to be in industrial relations. Today, their advanced degree is more likely to be an MBA or other business-related degree, finance even. Another influence is that more HR people today actually started in other areas of the business. They’ve had rotations in operations and maybe had P&L responsibilities. Then they’ve gone into HR as a key rotation and really enjoyed it. So some of your best talents in the organization are saying, ‘You know what? This is where I want to focus and this is what I want to do.’
All of these themes have come together where fundamentally CEOs are becoming much more sophisticated in their expectations of the HR person. They want that strategic advisor, as opposed to the transactional, compliance, administratively focused leader who used to be in there.
Not to age myself, but in the 80s I started at State Farm in operations, and they moved me into what was then called personnel. I wondered what I did wrong! I was embarrassed to admit that I was in personnel, because HR didn’t typically attract the best people in business. Even when I got a promotion, I didn’t tell anyone because I went from personnel specialist 1 to personnel specialist 2. It didn’t seem that impressive.
Today you have a better caliber of executive in HR. They’re instilling confidence because of their thought leadership, their contributions, their intellect, their agility, and their curiosity. All these leadership traits and characteristics have boards and executive committees saying, “You know what? This person has the capability. Let’s rotate them. Let’s go have them take on this business unit or this geography or what have you and get them into our succession plan.” So we have a lot of intervening influences that are helping to shape that.”
In part 2 to be published next week, I ask Jason what CHRO and HR candidates are looking for in a job and how to prepare for their first 100 days.