Big Interview | Jane Datta, Former Chief Human Capital Officer, NASA

Jane Datta, Former Chief Human Capital Officer, NASA

Jane Datta, Former Chief Human Capital Officer, NASA, has a deep background in strategic workforce planning and human capital leadership. In this exclusive Q&A with HR Grapevine, Datta reveals the capabilities she prioritized in her rise to the CHRO role, and the approaches she took to develop these skills.

1. How do you foresee the CHRO role evolving in the next five years?

Well, to start, there are now many names for what an HR leader is. CHRO, Chief Talent Officer, Chief People Officer, and Chief Heart Officer, to name a few. I think this will continue over the next decade.

The more breadth and depth there is in what people teams need to provide, the more names and specialty areas you have. So, for example, the Chief Heart Officer isn’t in common use, but it’s about the entire employee experience, how it feels to be an employee in this organization, and how we nurture the sense of engagement and belonging.

I think the CHRO role will get larger and deeper, and this is a symptom of that. And finally, CHROs are going to home in on the employee experience as a source of competitive advantage.

2. And what about the role of workforce planning?

There will be a greater emphasis on understanding workforce risks and opportunities. We come from a legacy world where HR are the doers, taking orders and getting things done. HR will be an important advisor about changes in what we need the workforce to do, or coping with changes in what the workforce decides they want to do.

Looking for more

Successful CHROs can forecast and figure out what forecasts mean for the business and the people in the business. Understanding the impact of AI on the workforce over the next five to ten years will be a bigger deal even than it is today. Even a simple step to segment your current workforce could be to separate workers into categories of untouched by AI, aided by AI, and replaced by AI.

3. What skills have you found most helpful in roles at the CHRO level?

In the Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for all human capital policies and regulations for the U.S. federal government, they have a series of what they call executive core qualifications, one of which is building coalitions. Building coalitions is a huge deal because it’s about building relationships outside your normal environment.

You have to know what’s going on in the other functions, whether it’s finance, procurement, sales, or marketing. It’s not just about seeing reports. It’s helpful when we build trusted relationships so from a people business point of view you get enough inputs.

At NASA, we had great relationships with field centers, mission directors, and the CFO. I had a strong relationship with the CFO because I knew about budgeting.

I also found it important to have an authentic, fluent, and consistent voice. To communicate and be able to use language in a way that people understand your meaning. People should know where I stand and there shouldn’t be biases. What I’ve said before now, and will say in the future, should make sense given my point of view. Being consistent means people see me as trustworthy.

4. How did you go about improving skills across your career?

I'm big on acknowledging your own strengths and areas of challenge.

If you are ambitious to be in the top job, start by acknowledging where you need more work and be willing to learn. If you’re scared to fail you’ll stymie your opportunities to grow.

Something I’ve done that was helpful is to pick an area of emphasis for yourself. Something you see as your core capability area. For me it was workforce planning. Many people have one thing they do well. It’s a good starting place and gives you an identity. It gives you a core around which to build other capabilities. It gives you a sense of purpose.

And of course, there’s coalition building, as I mentioned earlier. People who have built great relationships around them have a much better chance of being selected for C-suite roles.

This can really help when building your own skills but knowing your limitations. I believe implicitly in technology and my vision for my function was to modernize it. But I’m not a technologist or data scientist, so it was important to have people I could turn to who could be a trusted advisor. They could candidly tell me what matters.

5. What other skills are important for current Directors, VPs, or Heads of HR to develop?

There’s also mental agility and creativity. We talk a lot about playbooks and methodologies. But the most successful HR leaders don’t just read a playbook, they are mentally agile. They pull out tools as they need them. They give themselves the creative license to take smart, not silly risks.

It can help to try some consulting, whether its internal or consulting to organizations outside your own firm. It can give a CHRO wannabe insights into how to do this work. You can get it in your own company by loaning yourself to work on another team or doing it one-on-one. As a CHRO, you are there to help the people who work for you and pull out their ideas. You’re not doing the work directly.

Finally, decision-making. As CHRO, the scope of decision-making gets bigger. They are often very visible and have a big impact on the brand and sentiment of the workforce. Knowing when is right to make a decision and how to communicate the decision is incredibly important.

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