Why You Need a Chief Talent Officer

Last updated: March 27, 2021
Estimated reading time: 5 min


We often hear from organizations seeking advice about equitable, successful hiring. They want to know where to post jobs or how to ask discerning interview questions. These are good questions, and there’s one critical step we recommend before you get to recruiting: make it someone’s job to focus on the full talent lifecycle from pool-building to hiring to development and retention.

Some organizations call this person the Head of Talent, and others call them the Chief Talent Officer. Some make this a part-time role for an existing staff member who can work closely with the Director and HR, and others hire a full-time senior leader with greater responsibilities.

Whatever the title, this article will help you understand the role, decide the scope of responsibility, and get ready to find your person. We’ll use “Chief Talent Officer” or “CTO” throughout this article.

What the @#^& is a CTO and Why Do We Need One?

Your people are your greatest resource. The CTO is the person who’s responsible for recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining the people you need to get the results you want. In coordination with the senior team, the CTO sets a strategic vision and priorities for all talent-related work. They design systems to mitigate bias in hiring, cultivate relationships to build your pipeline, keep an eye on short- and long-term staffing needs, and help hiring managers bring in great talent.

Of course, without a CTO, these responsibilities often fall to the CEO/Director, where competing demands can create bottlenecks. Just think of the time you’ll free up! With a CTO on board, you’ll have someone dedicated to more efficient and successful hiring. They can channel the team’s energy just where it’s needed.

The Job in a Nutshell: 5 Areas of Responsibility

There are five main roles the CTO might take on. If you’re considering a part-time role, use this list to map out what that person will hold, and what needs will be held by the Director, HR, or other managers.

1. Hiring for current positions.

For many organizations, this may be the CTO’s #1 priority. Their job is to make it easier for new hires to succeed while decreasing the time and energy it takes to find them. They support staff to play an active role in hiring—or even lead some searches themselves.

2. Building a pipeline for future positions.

Building your pipeline year-round leads to more diversity in your pool and less time spent filling open positions. Proactive pool-building is also critical for organizations with episodic hiring needs (e.g., many canvassers needed for a short-term campaign).

3. New staff onboarding.

The CTO is responsible for setting up the framework and processes to ensure every new staff member has a high-quality onboarding experience.

4. Learning management and talent development.

While most organizations have systems in place for onboarding new staff, learning management is mostly ad hoc. The CTO can support individual managers to create and implement development plans for their staff.

5. Oversight of performance management systems.

The CTO may work closely with managers to ensure that promotion and compensation discussions are done consistently and incorporate an equity and inclusion lens. They may lead projects such as updating performance evaluation templates or creating career pathways for specific roles. They might also act as a thought partner for managers on performance or retention challenges.

Deciding the Scope and Responsibilities

Whether full- or part-time, the CTO needs to work closely with the Director and other hiring decision makers. To figure out the best role configuration, consider factors such as the number of open positions, turnover rates, and your organization’s stage of development. In large organizations, the CTO might manage a small team focused on all talent-related activities (including HR systems and processes like performance management and professional development). In smaller organizations, the talent leader might focus on building the candidate pool, screening, and developing guidelines for hiring managers. Here’s some guidance to help you scope the role:

Organization Size <15 employees 15-25 employees 25-50 employees 50+ employees
Capacity ~25% of an FTE 25-50% of an FTE 50-100% of an FTE 100% of an FTE

(At this point, you might have enough scale to consider a full-time Chief Talent Officer position that includes the Head of Talent role, plus other responsibilities.)

Ideal candidate The #2 or a senior manager Someone from within the organization Someone from within the organization Could be an external candidate
Level N/A >Director- or VP-level position (may report to a direct report of the ED) C-level (Chief Talent Officer) who reports to the ED
Role Focus Hiring, hiring, hiring (with an equity and inclusion lens) Hiring plus 1-2 other areas (such as staff training) All aspects of talent management (hiring, retention, learning and performance systems)
Notes Making it the #2’s job keeps ED from being a bottleneck May not be the #2’s job as they are likely to have a significant programmatic lift of their own May oversee a small team and/or all of HR.

Must-Haves to Look For

Here are some must-have characteristics you should look for, whether you hire externally or internally for the role:

  • A great manager with ample experience recruiting candidates and/or managing people
  • A discerning eye for talent—a knack for spotting true superstars from a pool of solid applicants
  • Well-respected by other leaders and staff for their people skills (an innate networker) and alignment with organizational mission
  • Proactive commitment to racial equity and inclusion in all aspects of their work
  • A track record of developing people and inspiring a “continuous improvement” mindset
  • Can see the big picture and spot patterns across seemingly disparate ideas/actions
  • Can give feedback to everyone including their boss, the ED/CEO, and can do it across lines of difference

Ready to find your next CTO? Check out these resources to get started:

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