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How to make the leap from HR professional to chief operating officer

Senior HR leader Paula Goodwin FCPHR influenced leadership and changed the way her organisation thought about investment through a people focused strategy.

For an HR leader to transition to chief operating officer is no mean feat, as the role is often given to those with a finance background. But maybe we’re seeing a shift. While becoming HR certified under AHRI’s Senior Leaders Pathway, Paula Goodwin was offered the role of COO for the Corporate Strategies Division, Department of the Environment and Energy. Her method? Influencing leadership and setting the vision for a future as strategically focused on people as it was on finances.

“When I joined the organisation, the HR maturity was fairly low,” she explains. “There had been budgetary cutbacks that resulted in the department increasing efficiency, to the extent that there were no more left to make.”

With no possibility of further cuts, the task was identifying the next round of efficiencies.

The answer wasn’t financial; it was about improving the capability of people.

The process took three steps. The first was diagnosing the problem with risk assessments. Goodwin explains: “I talked to senior people about what the future looks like, and whether they had the skills to deliver against those future challenges. I asked what do they need from their people that they currently aren’t getting?”

The second step was persuading and influencing senior leaders to think differently about the role of HR in delivering business outcomes. And persuading them to commit the necessary funding to meet those outcomes. The third step was building the framework, including an overarching people strategy. “We focused on diversity, leadership, developing core skills and creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace,” says Goodwin.

Underneath this lay a series of practical projects, including mapping the workforce, and reshaping the leadership program to develop talent in the right way. It also meant renewing performance management, shifting the focus to engagement and from underperformance to managing high-performance.

It wasn’t long into her tenure at the department that Goodwin was tapped to take on the role of acting COO – a signal that her bosses were impressed. She immediately demonstrated that she offered something unique. For instance, leadership is always eager to invest in the latest innovation promising them the world, but they often forget the most crucial element.

“Whenever there was a change, whether that be around technology or an operating model, I got them to think about the people who are going to deliver it, because they are the ones you need to invest in,” says Goodwin.

So even as the organisation was looking for a permanent COO, it discovered the value of the person already in the chair.

“Paula has a significant impact on the department,” says Matt Cahill, acting deputy secretary, strategy and operations group. “The evidence is in our staff survey results. Engagement is strong and we’re seeing the value of the diversity of our workforce.”

By more closely tying HR functions to organisational outcomes, Goodwin proved her worth and was made permanent COO.

“There is a range of things she has introduced in terms of measures and capability investment. But she also uses some softer levers,” enthuses Cahill. He’s very impressed by Goodwin’s work with the HR team.

“They’ve been able to start giving advice, shape key performance indicator reports, build tools and training programs, and develop an HR strategic framework,” says Cahill.

“We’ve seen the investment she’s making. There are a further four of our employees who are now on the path to HR certification as a result of her example.”

This article originally featured in the February edition of HRM magazine.

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Sylvester Wapea
Sylvester Wapea

I admire the approach she took. I always havw a dream to be a COO or GM HR one day with my current employer or any organization I get employed with in the near future.

I appreciate if her contact details are provided so I could get some advise from her and also get some of her articles which I could implement in my current position as HR Manager here in Papua New Guinea.

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