Why we have a Chief People Officer

Why we have a Chief People Officer


6 min read

Country bumpkin at heart

At heart, I am a technologist. I absolutely love my job, I get paid to solve problems for people by writing software and building products. However, this does require a lot of time sat down in front of computers. I’ve even worked in rooms that don’t even have any windows. The cliched developer lacking sunlight is sometimes closer to the truth than I would like it to be.

This is hard for me because I’m also a country bumpkin at heart. Growing up in Somerset, it’s hard not to appreciate the countryside. One of my favourite ways to decompress is to go to the middle of nowhere and cut myself off completely from technology. My partner, Miranda, and I love choosing remote areas of the UK where all we have is a log fire, copious amounts of wine and beautiful walks nearby. It allows us both the space and time to completely unplug from tech, phones and the internet, all of which is becoming even more important in a world that requires people to be always present and online. It also allows an amazing headspace to formulate new ideas, and I’m fortunate that Miranda happens to enjoy challenging my thinking, which helps me shape my early ideas into something more tangible.

People at heart

In May 2018 we were on one such decompression holiday where we were walking the Pennine Way. We were discussing our working lives at previous companies. We had both worked at consultancies in the past. I aired some frustration from early in my career when I was simply thrown in front of customers as some sort of ‘expert’ when in reality I had only just left university. This gave the end customers very little because I really didn’t know what I was doing. It also didn’t help me develop so over time I still didn’t know what I was doing. Ultimately I left because I wanted to hone my skills and I felt I wasn’t getting the right support to do this.

At this point I asked a simple question — Why didn’t I get more support? At consultancies or service-driven companies, ultimately your people are your product. You are selling their time and their expertise. So surely they should be the most important thing. At a product company, your product is the most important thing and you need to ensure it’s the best it can possibly be. You should take huge pride in your product. You should work hard to protect it and improve it constantly. However, it felt like most consultancies didn’t apply this same logic to their own people.

The more I thought about this I realised it all boils down to money. Most consultancies end up with a pyramid workforce — lots at the bottom and few at the top. This is great for growing profits and driving competition between employees to reach the top. However, does this provide the best employee experience? It certainly doesn’t provide the best value for customers. Customers end up with large teams of less experienced ‘consultants’ being led by a few experienced ones. This also puts a lot of pressure on those few experienced individuals. Wouldn’t it be better if we supplied more top quality people in smaller high performing teams who actually provide genuine value to the end client?

Making it a reality

Since those meandering thoughts on a meandering path in the Pennines I’ve had the chance to start making them a reality. When I founded Gemba with Shelley and Dave, we started with our first and most important value:

People are our most important asset

As a result we have always aimed to put people first. After all Gemba is just a collection of people all striving towards the same goal. We are nothing without our people. This was easier when we were small. However, we have scaled rapidly since starting Gemba and I was very aware there was a risk we could end up not living up to our own values. We needed a concrete way to embed that value into the DNA of Gemba. When restructuring we decided that one of the first senior leaders at Gemba should be a Chief People Officer (CPO). This was intentionally not just ‘HR’. The simplest way I can explain the difference is that traditional HR is there to look after the business, whereas we want to look after the people first.

We want to do something different. It turned out when speaking to others there are companies that have appointed Chief Happiness Officers (CHO). This is the closest thing I had envisioned with the CPO role but it was important to me this position had true empowerment to make a difference at Gemba. It felt like CHOs were the answer for large corporations trying to make a positive change in an attempt to put people first. But it felt like an additive approach, and we had the opportunity to truly embed this role deep into the fabric of Gemba, so that it would be impossible to make a decision without the People part of CPO having a voice. This is taken further by including the CPO on Gemba’s board.

We then had the daunting task of finding the right person for this role. We had a lot of candidates who came from traditional HR backends, although useful, they didn’t have that sense of difference we were looking for.

Our Chief People Officer

Then enter Abi. It was apparent from our first interaction she was different. Firstly she had a background in delivery so actually understood first hand what an employee experience was like for people at Gemba. This gives her a unique perspective. It spoke to the sense of embedding this within Gemba, and not having a separate HR department. Secondly, she is people first through and through. To her, solving delivery problems were always solved by addressing the people. She jumped at the huge challenge and exciting opportunity to build something truly different, where we can offer an employee experience at Gemba that feels different to other companies and one that is truly superior. Her relentless energy and endless positivity is contagious. I’m personally very excited to see the changes she wants to bring first hand.

Looking forward

  • Have we got the employee experience we want right now — No.

  • Do we know the details of exactly what this different model might look and feel like — No.

  • Have we failed some people by not living up to this value today — At times that has definitely been true.

What this means is that we have a lot more work to do. However, I am confident we are on the right track and have the right people in place to make it work! We have the potential to create, grow and evolve something truly different. To have a company where everyone loves coming to work and making a difference.

That’s the early idea I had while walking on the Pennine Way. As time has gone by and my thinking has been shaped and challenged, that value has only become more important to me. We want to improve the working lives for the people that make a difference — seems sensible to me to start with the people at Gemba.