Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
February 5, 2021

The CHRO as a Position of Influence

Bill Strahan, chief human resources officer at Comcast, never necessarily had a formal track to the top job. However, he believes his multi-faceted career journey — which includes extensive experience in corporate HR, legal and consulting roles — played an important role.

“I never really felt like I was taking jobs designed for the purpose of becoming CHRO,” Strahan told us. “However, I think that my pathway in general is a central factor for why I did get that call.”

Strahan is one of several top CHROs we have spoken with about their paths to the CHRO role and the skills that took them there. While our conversation occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown, we believe the themes of this conversation remain relevant.

Below is our interview with Strahan, edited for brevity.

Can you tell us about your path to the CHRO position?

The short version of the story is that in 10 years or so of corporate HR, I built up a massive amount of experience and developed the foundational skills you need, from working with people at all levels all the way to building out large-scale systems. Then I spent time in professional services, and I practiced law for a couple of years focusing on compensation and benefits.

As a lawyer, I always focused a great portion of my continuing education hours not exclusively on legal issues, but on ways to build my business skills — things like accounting for lawyers, technology for lawyers, data analytics for lawyers, etc. The key is focusing your learning on what you don’t know and other areas of expertise; you have to force yourself to be uncomfortable, so that you can continue to grow, not just in your own subject matter.

What were your expectations about the CHRO role going into it, and what has surprised you since taking the job?

The actual management of HR has in some respects been less difficult than I had expected, because I have a wonderful team, and I’ve purposefully built my organizations with that ability in mind. This means populating the team with a portfolio of HR leaders with diverse skills — technologists, managers, visionaries and deep subject-matter experts.

On the other hand, everybody outside of HR, that's the hard part. I knew that the position required a huge amount of work influencing other senior executives, but that’s actually proven to be the most important part.

What early career advice helped guide your career?

My first boss in business spoke all the time about how, to be a good HR person, first you must be a good businessperson. She laid down the fundamental view of the role’s relationship to the broader organization. She also embraced a fierce sense of integrity and fairness as the sustaining qualities you and the HR function must have in order to succeed long term.

Another piece of advice I’ve never forgotten is the value of being “unreasonable.” I was raised and educated in a way that said that the more reasonable you can be, the better professional you are and the better colleague you are. But sometimes you need to be “unreasonable” to make things happen. It has nothing to do with being nice or mean, or polite or rude. It’s about being passionate about building something new or creating something different, rather than ensuring it follows a reasonable process.

I think it touches on the “C” in CHRO. If you overuse the power you have, you won’t be effective. At the same time, to be fit for this job and make things happen, sometimes you will have to make tough decisions, and be willing to stand up for them.

How do you see expectations for CHROs changing in the future?

The CHRO can play a major role by showing how talent drives results. When the C-suite decides on a strategic plan, the CHRO as much as anyone can drive the quick pivot toward the new strategy. Because you typically have your hands on so many different levers, particularly communications, CHROs can guide your important agenda items.

I believe the future CHRO is also going to have to be an essential partner in driving digital transformation. You will have to be much more data- and tech-savvy, understanding what real end-to-end digital transformation means for the workforce. You also have to eliminate the romantic notion that you put data into a black box and an algorithm happens and you obtain magical things. The CHRO of the future must really understand digital tools, data and processes and how to use them.