Head of HR is most important business partner to the CEO, L'Oréal number two tells Unleash conference

With talent shortages among the biggest challenges facing companies, the relationship between the two has never been more crucial, delegates are told

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Barbara Lavernos, deputy CEO of L’Oréal, told delegates at the Unleash conference in Paris that CEOs need to embed HR and people matters as part of their core business strategy.

“HR was, is and will be the ultimate support to the CEO,” she said. “And that's truly my experience.

“Because technology can be copied; processes can be mimicked. But at the end of the day, nothing can replace an organisation and a culture of people. One of our previous CEOs once said: ‘A company is neither walls nor buildings nor machines; the company is people.’”

The combined responsibility of CEOs and HR is to join forces to “see what is starting and then immediately to project into the future and to build capacity to accompany those changes”, Lavernos continued.

This might include reskilling and upskilling throughout a company, she said: “To me, HR is about human relations and human care. So, to me, this is the main challenge in today's world.”

Eric Olsen, CEO of water and energy firm Aliaxis, said companies across the world were “facing a scarcity of talent”. Consequently, in some countries Aliaxis is running at 30 per cent below capacity “just because we can't find the people overall”. 

But this challenge presents a huge opportunity, primarily through diversity. Olsen said the firm’s leadership positions were made up of only 20 per cent women, “so we've got this huge untapped reservoir of potential to resolve this problem”. 

Olsen explained that he started his career in finance and operations and was then placed into HR. This “transformed the way I think about business” he noted, and created a pivotal shift in his business outlook.

“There's no one who is more convinced than me on how HR is actually the most strategic function overall,” Olsen said. “It's a great training ground to build your leaders of tomorrow as well to infuse them with that virus and that mindset, that talent, and having exceptional talent is the best path to success as a company.”

Jérémie Lecha, CEO of agribusiness Roullier Group, said HR topics following the pandemic were now those most frequently discussed by senior leadership. “This is the topic that we discuss the most in our executive committee – the challenges around recruiting, training and developing our people. That's really important.” 

Charles-Henri Besseyre des Horts, professor emeritus at HEC Paris, added: “What makes the difference between a high-performing and low-performing company? It's not the process, it's not the machine. It's the people – their intelligence, their commitment – everything else can be bought or copied. So that's exactly it.”