In a world of disruption and constant change, where ambiguity is the norm, we actively drive
conversations as thought leaders across multiple industries to generate insights that lead to
pragmatic outcomes.

Strategic CHRO

Caroline Heller

The Responsibilities of HR Are the “Intangible Connective Tissue of the Organization”

July 9, 2024

In this Strategic CHRO interview, Caroline Heller, Global Head of HR at BlackRock, shares her key leadership approaches for data-driven HR and strategic conversations with The ExCo Group CEO David Reimer and Senior Managing Director and Partner Adam Bryant.

Reimer: How is the day-to-day work of the CHRO role different from what you expected?

Heller: The work has been what I expected, but navigating some of the challenges is harder than I thought. There are a few key parts of the job. One is running HR. Another is navigating the leadership needs of the organization. And the third is helping to drive our collective thinking around the overall culture and needs of the organization from a people standpoint.

Running HR should, over time, play a much smaller role in the job as the other parts expand. After all, these are less well-defined responsibilities. They’re the intangible connective tissue of the organization, and the needs are very amorphous and fluid. That’s been fun and interesting but also a challenge because the role becomes much less about how to deliver and much more about how to navigate, persuade, and encourage. I knew that coming into the role, but I’ve come to appreciate that more.

Bryant: And that degree of difficulty keeps growing.

Heller: The overall ecosystem for business leaders has evolved a lot. There are also increased expectations and dynamism in the human experience right now, which plays a pronounced role in HR. With everything that’s going on in the world—including wars, elections, increasing polarization, and politicization of so many issues—the expectations from the workforce on the role your company should play in society feel very fraught.

Many people are looking to HR to say, “This is the role companies should play.” You have to be clear about your company’s true north and stick to issues that are core to your company’s area of expertise. All that adds new layers of complexity.

Reimer: How did you get into the HR field?

Heller: I graduated college as a psychology major and planned to get my Ph.D. and be a clinician. But I needed a job and wanted to live in New York City, so I took a job in HR. I didn’t know anything about the field—I assumed it was like the complaints department—and I planned to do something for a year or two before going to graduate school.

But I learned what everybody in the HR field comes to appreciate—that companies deliver things through people. So, your business strategy has to be super-tied to your people, and I love that opportunity to help leaders understand the commercial hook behind focusing on their people. I like the challenge of helping people see the impact of putting HR at the forefront of strategic conversations.

And I like how HR has become more data-driven to help drive those conversations. The goal is to get ahead of what capabilities we need and where and then ensure our initiatives come to fruition by creating communities and teams. There is something compelling to me about both the execution of the strategy and the humanity of the result.

Bryant: What were early influences that really shaped who you are as a leader?

Heller: I was always a doer and a bit of a nerd. I was in the school newspaper and joined the dance team. I liked being broad and involved in many different things, and I felt proud of being able to pack a lot of activities and schoolwork into my day and be successful at them.

Then, my dad died when I was young. He was a great guy, and I had a wonderful relationship with him. I needed to rise to the occasion, and that taught me grit. When I was a freshman in college, I had to visit the bursar’s office with his death certificate because we didn’t qualify for financial aid based on our tax returns, and I needed to get qualified. That was a surreal experience, but one of many can-do moments for me—you see problems, and you get energized that you can solve them. I’m wired to be proud of being capable of solving hard things.

Reimer: What was a key lesson from early in your career?

Heller: I was in my first role as head of HR for a business unit, and I went to my first meeting as a member of the executive committee. I brought the world’s largest binder with me because I wanted to make sure that I could answer any question that someone might ask. There was a woman on the team who was known for giving very direct feedback. She was on video for this meeting, and she called me right after and said,  “What’s with the *&^@! binder?” I said, “What do you mean? I wanted to be prepared.”

She said, “Senior people don’t carry binders, and they don’t sit a hundred miles away from the senior leader like you were. If someone asks you a question, what are you going to say—‘Hold on while I flip to tab Q’? No, you’re going to wing it, or you’re going to say, ‘I’ll come back to you on that.’ But you’re definitely not fussing around with a binder.” She was so direct, and it was meaningful. And to this day, I only carry a small notebook.

Bryant: What skills will separate the best HR leaders in the future?

Heller: Range is important. Yes, there are always going to be pockets of expertise that you need. But you have to be able to “think big and see small,” and you need people who can support you in all those ways, and you need to be growing people who can do that in the future. I also believe that thinking big has gotten bigger, and seeing small has gotten smaller.

As an example of the smaller, there are now hundreds of regulations around compensation, and they differ by state and country. Sometimes, the disclosures you make in one place will get you in trouble in another. The think-big problems have become more complicated, and there are knock-on effects commercially and with your employee value proposition. So, there is more breadth and depth of issues overall. That stretches what future HR leaders are going to have to think about.

Reimer: What other X-factors will separate the best leaders over the long term?

Heller: Agility and the ability to navigate change because the pace of change will just continue to speed up. So, part of what you need to do as a leader is to be really strategic, think big, and stay the course, but the course is probably going to include more obstacles.

So, how do you choose when to stay the course and when to be reactive to an obstacle? Given the polarizing nature of the current environment, there’s more pressure to get knocked off course by some event. So, how do you discern between what’s true north and when you must be agile and reactive? The pressure to be reactive is greater than ever, but sometimes, you must hold true to your course. The distinction between the two is getting harder.

This interview with Caroline Heller, Global Head of HR at BlackRock, on data-driven HR is part of our Strategic CHRO interview series with transformational HR leaders. Subscribe for future interviews.

Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

Download the article.