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6 Proactive Strategies For Retaining Your People Ops Lead

Updated: Apr 18

People Ops leaders are burnt out. Many are looking for a way out, whether that is consulting, taking a “demotion” to join a larger team at a more established company, or just quitting without any idea what comes next.

What would make these leaders feel supported?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself and dozens of other HR professionals over the last few weeks. Luckily, I have some answers.

Six to be exact. Each as practical and actionable as they come.

In today’s episode, I’ll be walking you through each, so you can proactively work to retain your People Ops lead in the coming year.


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Here's the edited transcript:

How to Retain Your Head of HR

Some of you are tuning in for the first time because we had the pleasure of meeting at 15Five’s Thrive conference last week in Austin. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to spend time surrounded by other humans who are passionate about creating a better world of work! It totally filled my cup and I’m guessing it filled yours too. I really hope this podcast can be a way to continue providing inspiration and actionable tools as we are faced with an ever-uncertain economy.

On the other hand, some of you are tuning in for the first time because you employ an incredible people ops leader, and want to do everything in your power to make sure they feel supported this year and every year! I am JUST as excited that you are here. The impact my CEO’s support had on me while I was a director of people and culture was one of the main reasons I was able to continue showing up and leading in the way I did during the pandemic. I would argue there is no one in the company that has a more outsized impact on whether or not a people ops lead decides to stay in their role.

That’s a lot of responsibility – I know! But it’s also exactly why I’m doing this episode and why I’m so glad you tuned in!

I’ve spent the last few weeks asking dozens of HR leads the same question: “What are the one or two things your CEO could do that would make you feel supported in 2023?”

The six actionable recommendations below are a collection of both their responses and what I know to be true through my own experience. I truly hope it helps shed light on some of the proactive ways you can support your head of people.

I should add that two weeks ago I published an episode about why so many people ops leaders are looking to get out of their roles. If you missed that episode, I highly recommend going back and giving it a listen. It will shed a lot of light on some of the pressures being felt by individuals holding this role in modern organizations.

Alright, with all that said, let’s dive into the six ways you can proactively support and retain your head of people!

1. Give them a seat at the table - and make sure they report directly to the CEO.

One of the trends I’m most excited about over the last few years, is the growing understanding that People Ops leaders are highly strategic – not just tactical. I am hearing more and more often from peers that they’ve been given a seat at the executive table, so they can be part of the proactive strategizing instead of being forced to react to decisions that were made without them in the room. Not only does this allow them to advocate early for decisions that will have substantial impacts on the team, but it also elevates the importance of proactive people-focused strategies and insights to the highest level of consideration possible. You cannot be a people-focused organization without your head of people on the executive leadership team.

That said, having a seat at the executive table is not the only important change emerging from this trend. It also includes a shift of People Ops leaders reporting directly to the CEO vs the CFO. If your head of people isn’t reporting directly to you as the CEO, there is no more impactful change you can make this year. When your head of people reports directly to you as the CEO, it creates space for a deeply trusting relationship to emerge. And that is exactly the type of relationship that is needed before you can fully empower them to make some of the hard decisions that need to be made in the role.

I made this the first suggestion, because there is nothing more important than empowerment and trust from the CEO when you’re in a people-ops role. Finding more ways to give them that will go a long, long way to retaining them.

2. Acknowledge and account for the emotional labor they do.

Modern People-Ops professionals are some of the most caring, empathetic people on the planet. Contrary to the image that’s been portrayed of them for many years, the HR professionals I know are not out to “get” their employees. We don’t delight in drafting new policies that screw over our teams, so we can save the company a few dollars. Instead, we take these roles because we really, really care about people. We want to change the way we work. We want to ensure things are more equitable. Strategic decisions at the highest level take more into consideration than just the bottom line.

It’s both an absolute gift and one of the biggest reasons leaders in these roles are burning out. As I mentioned in my last episode, People Ops professionals are quickly becoming workplace therapists - a role they were never officially trained for. We’re holding space for employees that come to us with everything from family illness and deaths to mental health battles to their own struggles with burnout. For many of us, “that’s not my problem” is not part of our vocabulary. Instead, we make the time and space to support these individuals in whatever way we can. And we work to support our managers in tackling these same types of challenges, so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Just like the invisible emotional labor that is shouldered by moms, this work is often uncredited and unnoticed. It wasn’t until I was out of my last role, that I looked back and realized I was often doing two jobs - the visible job you could document via a job description AND the often invisible role of holding space for those who needed it. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to do it. And I would do it again - albeit likely with better personal boundaries. But I would also want to make sure my CEO understood that part of my job and the toll it took on my energy and emotions. I was lucky that my last CEO did understand and appreciated that aspect of my role. And I can’t tell you just how far that went.

If you are in a position to ask about and acknowledge the emotional labor your head of people is carrying I urge you to do it. I promise you, noticing and caring will mean so much to them.

3. Provide emotional and strategic support through an advisor.

While acknowledging the emotional labor that’s being carried will go a long way, there is an even larger opportunity to put systems in place that will support your head of people in the long run. Many People Ops leaders in my network are looking for ways to put these systems in place for themselves, ranging from therapy to designated time off each month. That said, I believe this is the year of investing in strategic advisors and coaches that can provide structured on-going support.

Many CEOs are quick to hire a slew of strategic advisors that can help them navigate tough decisions and stay on top of emerging best practices. What’s less common is providing the same support to your HR lead. I believe this is the year this will really begin to change. People always say being a CEO is a lonely job. Well, so is being a head of people. Not only are you often holding sensitive information that cannot be shared with anyone else internally, you also have to work extra hard to gain the trust and respect of their team.

We are also asking our HR leaders to wear an increasing number of hats - ranging from hybrid work best practices to navigating politics in the office to building DEIB policies that are impactful vs performative. As you may have heard in my last episode, it’s A LOT.

Whether it’s me or another strategic advisor and coach, I highly, highly recommend providing access to someone outside the organization that can serve as a sounding board, cheerleader, and resource to your people ops lead who is giving their everything to your team.

4. Provide tactical support through a virtual assistant.

Emotional support isn’t the only thing People Ops leads are craving. I’ve heard from many that are also drowning in a sea of never-ending tasks that are pushed back in favor of tackling whatever urgent fire has emerged that week. While I would argue many HR teams are understaffed (a topic for another episode) I also know that adding an additional team member isn’t always an option. What I do know is that VA (or virtual assistant) support is an option - and one I’d argue is underutilized in the People Ops space.

Granted, this is a result of my own recent experience in hiring one for myself recently. I had the pleasure of meeting Amber Gray at an event this summer. She is the founder of Trusty Oak, a business that matches US-based VA with busy professionals. It felt like perfect serendipity, as I had been pondering hiring a VA for months, but kept putting it off because I didn’t know how to find someone overseas - which was how I thought everyone did it.

Fast forward and I’ve been working with a VA from Amber’s team for over four months and couldn’t be happier. However, the thought I keep going back to is - “I wish I would have had this support when I was in my Director of People role!” Even just 10 hours a month of support from someone who could have handled little tasks, whether business or personal, would have made a HUGE difference in my stress level. It’s why I feel so compelled to include it in this episode.

If you are looking for a very tactical, tangible way to provide some immediate relief to your head of people, but can’t afford to bring on an additional full-time team member, I highly, highly, highly recommend considering reaching out to Amber’s team at Trusty Oak and discussing some VA support. I can promise you, it will go a LONG way in making your head of people feel seen and supported.

It is very rare that I recommend specific practitioners on this podcast. In fact, I think this might be the first time I am, which is why I feel compelled to share that this is not some sort of ad placement. In fact, I reached out to Amber to make sure it was cool if I included her in this episode. Because she is an amazing human, she not only gave me that go-ahead but responded with a discount code to share with all of you. I’ll put their contact information along with a promotion code for 10% off your starter pack in the show notes.

There are of course SO many options available to you for VAs, but I can personally only vouch for Trusty Oak. That said, the recommendation is to find some VA support for your head of people - no matter where you’re sourcing it. I promise it will have an outsized impact!

5. Increase the software budget.

The HR tech space has become a behemoth in the last 10 years. There are tools for everything imaginable, from the long-invested in HRIS to newer employee engagement software and even digital coaching platforms. While it can be a lot to navigate, what I do know is that there is no more cost-effective and scalable way to amplify the work a people team does than to set the company up with the right software stack. I also know that it’s often REALLY hard for People Ops teams to make the case for investing in new or updated software. Getting the line item approved can be a really uphill battle - and it’s one that can be neglected when more urgent, pressing items seem to always pop up.

It’s why # 5 on this list is a strong consideration for increasing your HR tech stack budget. While there is definitely a time and energy investment up front, there is nothing that can replicate the direct impact strategic software can have in the long run.

If your people team is advocating for a new or upgraded piece of technology I urge you to listen and really consider the ask. I promise they have given it a great amount of thought and it will pay off in spades!

6. Respond with appropriate urgency

This last one actually stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it. As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, I had the great pleasure of attending 15Five’s first in-person conference last week and took the opportunity to ask many HR professionals the same question:

“What are the one or two things your CEO could do that would make you feel supported in 2023?”

The majority of answers fell into the above 5 action items - but one woman didn’t skip a beat when she responded, “Act with more urgency.” She went on to explain that topics and concerns she brought to the table were often acknowledged but punted to the following month or quarter or year when “there’d be more time.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely experienced this before and her clear labeling of it truly knocked me sideways.

Urgency is such a simple, but powerful thing. It is directly tied to what matters most. And when what you bring to the table is considered urgent by no one but you (and the employees who are raising it to you) it’s exhausting.

I think one of the main reasons people ops professionals are leaving the industry is because they’re tired of feeling like the only ones who care. The only ones carrying the torch. Raising the battle cry. You can only be that person alone for so long before it feels like you can no longer go on.

Every actionable item on this list is a vote for supporting your people ops team. Doing any of the above will help them feel seen and supported. I hope with everything in me that even one CEO hears this episode and considers enacting some of the suggestions going into the new year. But more than anything, I hope the message of urgency really sticks.

Well, there you have it. Six ways you can proactively retain your head of people.

I really hope you are walking away with at least one - if not multiple - plans to implement some changes that will support your People Ops lead.

I’m also happy to answer any additional questions you may have after listening to the episode. And I really mean it when you say, I hope you reach out. If it hasn’t already been incredibly clear, helping retain more incredible, caring, passionate people ops professionals is high on my list – and I’m happy to give advice to anyone looking to do just that.

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