How do Chief People Officers start their day? 11 HR leaders reveal their secrets to success

Jess Fuhl
Published on 7th June 2018
6 min read

Do you have a morning routine you stick to every day religiously? Perhaps you mix things up each morning, but there’s one thing you always make time for.

We’ve delved into the morning routines of 11 chief people officers (CPOs) to understand: do they have a secret to their success?

Are there any productivity hacks that they swear by? Are there any similarities between the morning routines of the most successful leaders in the sector?

From ‘eating the frog’, to 80’s pop ballads, to the trusty cup of coffee, they spill their morning secrets – with a few answers which may surprise you.

Start the day with a strong soundtrack

Whether it’s a run outside, a gym session, or listening to music, our CPOs like to get their energy levels up first thing.

Michael Williams, CPO at Byron Burgers, wakes up at 6.15am most days to 80s pop ballads. He says it ‘gets the energy up, particularly in winter when I don’t really want to move’.

Exercise, exercise, exercise

This was one of the most common morning habits of our chief people officers.

Paul Whitney, CPO at Databricks, says he heads to the gym at least three mornings per week around 6.30am: ‘I always feel more positive after a good workout’.

Another early riser is SQS Group’s Vanessa Karadimos-Tonkin who says her alarm is set for 6am and most mornings she takes a gym class to get her energy levels up for the day. ‘Getting up at the same time each day and a morning workout helps me keep focused for the busy day ahead’, she says.

Jenn Wolf, CPO at CLEAR, keeps it simple: ‘Wake up early, turn on some tunes, exercise!’

Early-rising exercisers : we salute you!

Re-energizing later in the day

However, Lindsay Barnett of HR services company HR by Hoxby saves her exercising for later in the day. ‘I try to pop out for a quick gym session or spin class at lunchtime as I find exercising for me is better once I’ve cleared my mind’, she explains.

‘It energizes me for the rest of the day and I use the time to think about any decision points where I’m procrastinating; thinking about them whilst exercising is a great way to focus my mind on whatever the issue is.’

Find a quiet ten minutes every morning

Another common part of our CPOs’ morning routines is finding some quiet time to get their heads in the game ready for the day ahead.

Sunaina Mattoo Khanna, CPO and head of transformation at Bajaj Capital, has carved out a way to have a peaceful start to the day.

‘After I get up, I spend some time with myself and take a brief walk on my balcony along with my morning tea, before getting my three-year-old son ready for the creche. Before leaving for the office, I ensure I also do a 10 minute meditation and prayer which makes me feel more at peace.’

Lindsay Barnett, at HR by Hoxby adds that since having her son who has just turned one, a lie in is now anything past 6am.

‘My routine consists of a strong coffee for me, milk for my son, and we try to relax for 20 minutes and just embrace the new day’, she says. She uses this quiet time to contemplate the day ahead, check her calendar and get her head in gear for the day ahead.

Byron Burger’s CPO Michael Williams says he thinks about what he wants to achieve that day while in the shower so he is focused at the start. ‘I also like to get to the office at 7.30am because I get quiet time to organize myself for the day ahead and do any detailed brain work.’

Vanessa Karadimos-Tonkin at SQS Group says she makes sure she gives herself some quiet time on the train to read her book during her daily commute.

Protect the first few minutes of the work day

Esther Wallington, CPO at the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs government department (HMRC), clears her schedule for the first part of her day.

‘Wherever possible I try to make sure I have no meetings until 9.15, ideally 9.30. That gives me 15 minutes with my office each day where we can talk about any urgent actions, diary changes and they can tip me off on anything I need to know.’

She adds: ‘On days where I go straight into a busy meeting day I know I function less well if I haven’t gone through my diary in the morning and spoken to the team’.

Eat the frog first

Heard of the saying ‘Eat the frog’? It’s tackling the biggest, most-daunting task on your to-do list first. How many of us actually do it, though?

Amanda Cusdin, our CPO at Sage, is a firm believer in doing the most important task first thing in the day, as you’re more likely to be alert, least likely to get interrupted, and most focused.

Her advice? ‘Ask yourself, what is the one thing you must achieve today? Get it done first thing in the morning.’

She adds: ‘If it’s easier than you expected, you have the rest of the day free to get on with everything else. If it’s harder than expected, you have the rest of the day to figure it out. Either way, start it early’.

Following up on the day before

Another common morning habit our CPOs had was checking back on the previous day’s actions to see what still needs to be resolved or dealt with.

Michael Williams at Byron Burger has a to-do list on his desk which he comes back to each morning, while Sunaina Mattoo Khanna, CPO at Bajaj Capital, says she closes on all the pending points from the previous day.

The morning impact of managing a global team

Most of the CPOs we spoke to all check-in first thing with their people, be it in person or digitally, and place a high value on this personal interaction – particularly as global CPOs.

Darren Cross, CPO at Safari Kid, says: ‘When I get to the office, I will normally have early calls with my team in India’.

For Amanda Cusdin at Sage it’s vital to check in on what’s happened overnight: ‘Working for a global organization means I also need to check the news and my emails for anything that has happened overnight which impacts our teams or colleagues’.

For Deborah Lee, CPO at Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, she relies more on WhatsApp for updates at the start of the day.

She explains that her door is usually open so the team can swing by and grab a quick chat as needed, but mostly this isn’t necessary for work activities because they use WhatsApp for instant conversations globally.

‘My team is global; we are spread across different countries and often in different time zones so agility is required in terms how we stay in touch’, she says.

Morning team check-ins and huddles

Michael Williams, Byron Burger’s CPO, has a team huddle at the start of the week. ‘I take the back seat and listen to how they are going to work through the week ahead and chip in to coach if anything needs thinking through a bit more.’

Darren Cross, CPO at Safari Kid, says he always tries to grab time with his team and find out how they are and make time for informal conversations – whether or not they’re work related.

‘When the team arrive, I will then check in with them, and make sure the office environment has a really nice feeling to it and a strong people-centric culture.’

He adds: ‘Engaging with the team I work with everyday and taking interest in their lives both at work and outside work is really important; it makes them feel valued and cared for’.

Getting out into the trenches

For Star Kimm, CPO at an early-venture start-up, the best part of her morning routine is walking around the office to seek out opportunities to diffuse any issues before they might arise.

‘At work, I get some tea or coffee to start my daily stroll throughout the office to see what the day will bring, or what issues people may have. It helps me to take the pulse of the company which helps me to prioritize my to-do list very quickly’, she says.

She adds: ‘I pick up trash and clean up around the office, letting people see me, because I expect from others what I expect from myself.’

Email smart and wisely

In our always-on culture it’s easy to fall into the habit of checking emails constantly but it was good to see our CPOs all had a healthy balance of quick email checking first-thing, but not allowing emails to take over their morning routines.

Most of them used their commute into the office to check emails, but of particular note is HR by Hoxby’s Lindsay Barnett’s disciplined approach to email checking.

‘As I mainly work from home these days, I tend to have breakfast in front of my laptop. I choose some music from Spotify and check my emails and slack messages.’

‘I often use an app on my phone which has a timer on 25 minutes, listening to wave type music, otherwise, I’ll be so engrossed that the day can run away and all I’ve done is look at emails which can be totally unproductive!’

Be strict with yourself about how you spend your time

Similarly, Esther Wallington at HMRC advises nobody going into a meeting or commencing a project at the start of the day without knowing exactly what they want to achieve from that meeting or project.

She explains: ‘Spending time thinking about that in the morning pays off during the day. Too many of us across all industries are what I describe as ‘passengers’ in the work we do or at meetings, and I include myself in that.’

‘Really thinking about purpose and outcome gets us out of the process, and into what we want to achieve for the people in our workforce, and that pays off in every direction.’

Finding your morning mojo – for yourself and your team

Most of our CPOs recognized that everyone is different, and what works for one person may not suit another, so their advice was to find what works best for you each morning.

However, there were some great words of wisdom around valuing your people and making time for yourself that we wanted to share.

‘Make sure you invest time talking to your people so they feel valued, and giving yourself time to think and reflect everyday so you are thinking more broadly or strategically, rather than operationally’, says Darren Cross at Safari Kid.

Byron Burger’s Michael Williams says: ‘Focus right at the start on what you want to achieve and what sort of leader you are at your best self.’

However, the last word goes to Sunaina Mattoo Khanna at Bajaj Capital, who reminds us why it’s important for people leaders to take time for their own wellbeing.

‘Though we are supposed to take care of employees, before that, we need to be fit and fine ourselves in order to take care of others.’

What’s on the minds of chief people officers? We spoke to 500 HR leaders to discover common challenges facing the sector – with surprising results. Download the research today to discover more.


Browse more topics from this article

Industry Insight
Exit popup

Take an Interactive tour of Sage People

Discover how Sage People can transform the way you hire, manage, engage and retain your workforce, in this interactive product tour.