How to Identify and Empower Your School's CPO

This is the second part of a blog series focusing on the importance of investing in people for the sustainability of independent schools. Here is the link to part one: People Matter Most: One Solution to Education Disruption!

Identifying people with high potential to lead is challenging in any organization, but it’s the secret to sustaining a strong culture. When we do organizational assessments in schools, we often find that the biggest vulnerabilities relate to the absence of a clear strategy for recruiting, developing and managing your most valuable asset—the people! In every case, we discover where espoused values of the school don’t match practices or operations, often due to gaps or misalignments in the assignment of people to critical roles, which creates a “cultural dissonance” that everyone can feel. But how do you identify the right people for the right roles, and which people are best suited to develop others for a broad range of organizational needs?

When was the last time you got direct, constructive and specific feedback on your work as a leader or an educator? In most schools, the time, space and resources devoted to conversations around talent, development and leadership capacity are found on the edges, in response to a pressing problem, or buried in an inconsistent and often overlooked evaluation protocol. Typically, the most capable people are thrown at problems that need to be fixed, asked to put out fires and developed on the fly. This reactive approach does little to optimize human potential, and rarely considers how the best talent can be developed within the most promising opportunities. We believe this organizational reality is a critical weakness, but also presents a powerful opportunity for schools: one where your “Chief People Officer” (CPO) becomes your “ace in the hole.” We think all schools need a CPO—a strategic partner for proactively ensuring that you are matching talent to organizational needs, successfully developing leadership capacity from within and cultivating a healthy, values based adult culture.

In reality, most schools have one or more people who own some elements of the CPO role. Often, a Dean of Faculty is explicitly responsible for professional development, hiring, and general advocacy for a healthy and robust adult climate. Sometimes, an Assistant Head of School or Head of School also plays an active role in how talent is identified, recruited, developed and deployed. Occasionally, talent development is left to various administrative leaders—from academic departments to admissions to advancement. Without question, the Head of School must set the tone and direction for how people shape the culture desired, but more often than not, there isn’t a cohesive vision for recruiting and developing faculty and staff around a school’s priorities, let alone a dedicated person to ensure that the vision is realized across the organization. Without this, it’s hard to build and sustain a culture that attracts and manages the right people.

In a recent interview, Reid Hoffman asked Brian Chesky, Founder/CEO of Airbnb, how he was able to build and manage culture in such a high touch, relational and people intensive business, particularly as the organization scaled. His approach has some important clues, including his emphatic priority on hiring (and firing):

Brian Chesky: I believe culture is a shared way of doing things. There isn’t a bad culture or good culture, but there are weak cultures and strong cultures. I wanted to have a strong culture—a shared mission, a way things are done, beliefs we share.

A big part of culture is hiring—who are you going to be spending a lot of time with—and how do you remove people who don’t fit within your culture. One of the strongest levers of culture is hiring.

I decided early on to interview every single person. I personally interviewed every employee up till the first ~200 employees.

Rarely can a school head devote time to this kind of approach—but a CPO can! So who is your CPO? And how do you find her? We often find that this person already lives in your organization, but she is busy doing too many things and her role is not as clearly defined or well utilized as it could be. In reality, most schools have one or more people who own some elements of the CPO role, but the benefit of consolidating these functions in one person is the ability to have strategic oversight over all of your people and a key leader to support the Head of School.

In the last post, we described some of the qualities of your CPO. As you consider your own leaders, ask these questions about how they operate inside your school to predict success as a CPO. Be sure your answers are grounded in concrete examples and experiences, rather than “feel” or perception alone.

  • Is the person a “culture carrier?” Someone who clearly embodies and models your school values in everything they do, whether in relationship to students or adults?
  • Is the person a systems thinker? A person who see and clearly articulate how the parts create the whole, identify levers for change, and help others understand it all?
  • Is the person trusted and trustworthy? Are they able to do the diagnostic and inquiry-based work inside your school that lead to sound choices?
  • Does the person ask the right questions? Do they create the conditions for others to engage and ask their own?
  • Is the person able to make tough decisions? Someone who can follow through, defend and modify them as required?
  • Does the person demonstrate ability to combine data with intuition? Are they able to do this in ways that are strategic, intuitive and logical?
  • Is this a person who actively empowers others? Can they manage, coach and/or enable colleagues to solve problems and make decisions? Can they build real capacity and sustainable performance in others?

The next question is: how do you empower your CPO and how do you maximize the potential of the role? The answer, in three parts, is simple on paper but requires real commitment in practice:

1.   Make the CPO role an official member of the “C-suite” team

This is an essential move because it signifies commitment to talent as your most important resource. If you can’t readily integrate and partner with this person as a fully authorized member of your leadership team, then you are not ready to harness the potential of the CPO role. This appointment should be visible to trustees, students, the community, and all of your faculty and staff.

2.   Announce the appointment as a strategic imperative with the purpose of aligning talent and leadership with institutional goals.

In other words, clearly communicate how this appointment supports your strategy, how it helps to build the culture you value, and how this role will serve students and adults in ways that are values aligned and strategically critical. Often, this kind of announcement can be linked directly to the choices and priorities you’ve identified as a mission critical; and the first assignment can be to conduct a needs assessment for talent and leadership.

3.   Free him or her to focus entirely on talentand every aspect of managing talentacross the entire institution.


This may seem like the biggest change relative to the standard operating procedure in schools, where leaders often wear multiple hats, but focus in one particular area of school life. To be wholly effective, the CPO needs to understand, address and serve the talent needs of the entire organization and operate with an enterprise wide mindset. Freeing your CPO to work in this way, and without other responsibilities that distract from this strategic purpose, will support success and the building of an organization that truly develops talent.

In the end, the Head of School must set the tone and direction for how people shape the culture desired. But a CPO can drive a cohesive vision for recruiting and developing faculty and staff around a school’s priorities. Add here’s a little secret—sometimes this person is a great potential candidate for succession.

What’s next…The Work of the CPO: From Hiring to Evaluation to Leadership And Succession Development