Aligning with the CEO to Set Culture: Reflections from a Chief People Officer

Reflecting on experiences from a 25 year journey to becoming a Chief People Officer, Deb Josephs shares core principles of HR and C-Suite Leadership on their professional journey.

Deb Josephs
Principal, Deb Josephs Consulting & Former CPO, Latch

My journey to the corner office includes over 25 years working in a variety of companies, from tiny to multinational, from privately held to public, from successful to dysfunctional.  As well as working with first time CEOs and sometimes very seasoned CEOs. I’ve seen quite a bit on the road to Chief People Officer.   

I’ve actually been the HR team of one and I’ve also grown an HR team to over 40 employees globally.  I’ve been part of IPOs and part of selling a couple of companies.I’ve seen companies flounder and I’ve seen companies fail;  and with each experience I’ve learned invaluable things.  I’d like to share a few of those with you.


To start, if you are the CEO of a company and your “right hand” is your CFO, your left hand needs to be your CPO, your chief people officer. That’s a signal to the employees that you value the money just as much as you value the people. It’s really tough to make great people decisions when the head of HR reports to the CFO or COO.  Many years ago, when I reported to a CFO and was asked to cut 20 employees (just a few weeks before Christmas), I asked for a meeting with the CEO to plead that we wait until after the New Year. I put the CEO in a difficult position of going around the CFO and lost that battle. I understand why, however, I never agreed to report to a CFO again.


Second, by defining and building the personality that you want for your company, that becomes the magnet to attract and retain A players.  When you think of Apple, what do you imagine it’s like to work there?   How about Google?  How about Southwest Airlines?   These are not just brands with a consumer “personality” but we can almost imagine what it’s like to be an employee at each one based on what we’ve heard and read.  

Those “personalities” didn’t just form without a vision and someone’s conscious decision to define what values will be upheld, rewarded and sought after.   

Once you define what types of employees you are looking for and then reward those employees for demonstrating the right values, then you’ll create that personality (culture) that will define your talent brand to attract and retain top talent.


Lastly, the CEO of the company is like a parent.  How that person shows up every day is how the employees (the family) are going to show up every day.  Sometimes the company “parents” are comprised of the entire executive team, and how you align those folks sets the tone for everything else. For many years (pre-COVID), I worked for a CEO who would come to the office on a Friday every few weeks and without fail, would comment on how few employees seemed to be in that day. We had a flexible work policy but most folks chose to be remote on Fridays. Those employees also knew that there was about a 25% chance that the CEO would be in the office on a Friday so they didn’t think they were going to miss out on “face time”.  The CEO suggested we make Fridays in-office mandatory. I wasn’t so concerned about employees being remote and asked the CEO, “What’s not getting done?” To which he had no response. When he made “face time” important instead of focusing on performance and outputs, he set the wrong tone. Eventually, we moved to a goal-oriented performance model and his mindset changed (and performance improved).  


Of course, since the pandemic, “face time” has become irrelevant but something else has emerged; the caring CEO. When the CEO leads by example and demonstrates that they are able to balance their personal and work life, even when stuck at home, the rest of the employees know it’s ok to do the same.   Here’s the same CEO’s perspective today (at a new company) sharing how important he realized it is to be a great dad.   


Often, candidates ask the same question, “What’s the culture like here?” They think they want to hear about the perks, parties, rewards, etc. That’s not culture and in our “new work world”, some of those things don’t exist anymore.  


The culture of your organization is its collective personality.

Let me illustrate.

If you were to describe the culture of your company as if you were to describe your best friend, what would you say?  

“...  such a good person, there when I need her, will pick me up from the airport if I need it and so much fun to hang out with.  Really trustworthy and reliable, tells it like it is and wants to hang out with me as much as I want to hang out with her…”    

Doesn’t that sound like the person you want to work with?


How would you describe the personality of your company? What if you shared the same values, similar to the ones you share with your best friend or spouse? We spend so much time with our colleagues, what a perk to like them, too!


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