Episode 358: Thinking Like a Business Leader to Drive Success With Sung Hae Kim, Fractional Chief People Officer

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Episode 358: Thinking Like a Business Leader to Drive Success With Sung Hae Kim, Fractional Chief People Officer

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Table of Contents

For me, I think the key difference is that I am less emotional about my work because there’s it’s not a longer, long-term commitment and you’ve got more than one company you’re supporting. And so I can truly focus on providing a service. So in other words, there’s a little bit less ego on my part. I am able to maintain a healthy distance from the work that I do, and myself as the leader of the people function. As a consultant, I’m not really a leader within the company and I’m only visible to the CEO, members of the executive team and the people team and then people that I work with on a project basis.

Episode 358: Thinking Like a Business Leader to Drive Success With Sung Hae Kim, Fractional Chief People Officer


Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:12.88] Welcome to the Workology Podcast sponsored by the Workology Council. This podcast, the Workology podcast, is my baby. And I feel like it is a way for me to share with you the things that have my attention, while also providing you, as an HR leader, the support and resources to help you do your job better. One of those areas that I have been really focused on is the role of the Chief Human Resources Officer or the CHRO. The CHRO is also sometimes called the SVP of HR or the Chief People Officer, and they’re an executive at the organization that helps with managing human resources as well as organizational development and implementing policies of change that are designed to improve the overall efficiency of the company. Now, another reason why I have decided to focus just on CHROs and Chief Human Resource Officers in this Workology Podcast series, which I call the CHRO series, is because there’s a lot of mystery around the CHRO role. And as we’re going to see from my guest, sometimes we don’t even share what’s going on with one another like our peers at other organizations who are also in those roles. So I want other senior HR leaders to be able to hear from our peers, from our friends, to hear about what we’re doing, what’s new, and how we’re feeling. What’s going on in our lives as a Head of HR. And I want to share with future and aspiring CHROs the tools and resources and the things that they need to know about so they can promote into that future role. Today, I’m joined by Sung Hae Kim. She’s a Fractional Chief People Officer. Sung Hae has over 20 years of experience helping multinational organizations address their toughest challenges. Her career has focused on people strategy, talent development and organizational transformation. She holds a doctoral degree in human and organizational learning, a master’s degree in I/O psychology and a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology. Sung Hae, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:03:20.14] Thank you. And I just want to say I really appreciate you inviting me to be on this podcast. I’ve looked at the companies and individuals you’ve featured, and it’s very impressive. I’ve listened to a few and, and gotten lots of learning nuggets from them. So thanks a lot.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:36.46] Awesome. Well, it’s doing what it was intended to do. So that’s the, that’s my reason. That’s my purpose, is to help educate HR leaders. So I’m excited to have you share what you know with us today with the podcast community. So let’s go ahead and get started. You have worked in HR leadership in a variety of industries for more than 20 years. How did your early career leads you to your current role and the work that you do now?

Sung Hae Kim: [00:04:04.97] Yeah. I feel like I was really lucky in that I was attracted to the field of industrial-organizational psychology in college, and what fascinated me was the connection between how things are made and what motivates people to make them. So I actually started off as an intern during my graduate studies, and there I had this opportunity to be rotated into different departments, starting with recruiting and then learning and development and also sort of the, supporting the head of the HR operations department. And I fell in love with learning and development. Then my first real job after that was when I was given the opportunity to be an internal organizational consultant in that organization where I was doing my internship. And learned what OD was all about and was received a lot of training. So then with my skills in OD consulting and background in I/O psychology, the science of what motivates people at work, I was then offered a strategic HR business partner leadership role in a company that was transforming into being, having more of a strategic HR function. So I became a leader really early in my career and found myself managing much more senior people who had been in their HR roles for many years. But because the company at the time it was Lucent Technologies, was transforming into this new HR model, that was David Ulrich’s HR Business Partner Shared Services Center of Excellence model. I learned a lot and learn how to be more strategic and think about HR in a, more efficiently and business-driven. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and this was the headquarters for the Asia Pacific region for this global company. And I had the opportunity to work across a dozen or more countries and that the complexity of the job and this new opportunity and the transformation in the region gave me a huge growth opportunity.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:28.44] I love that and what a great story. And I, and I mean really the role of the HR Business Partner and Centers of Excellence, that whole model, it is really what so many of us in HR now and our teams are built on. So what great experience for you to put something together. And I feel like now so many HR organizations are really thriving using just all the knowledge and resources that Dave has shared. What skills and experience do you believe are absolute requirements for a CHRO role, especially thinking about those just starting in the industry? And I’m really excited to hear your point of view here because you do have a different educational background than most Chief People Officers.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:07:18.87] Yeah, and that’s an interesting question because when I was starting out, I never anticipated or dreamt of being in a Head of People or Chief People Officer role. My initial thought was to do consulting, teaching, but more research-based. So as you ask that question, I’m like, I didn’t actually plan it out, but when I, when I think about the requirements and where people may want to develop skills, I think firstly it’s talent, leadership overall and strategic business partnership, which for me means being able to understand the business. Think like a business leader and connect the dots for what the people practice is and programs are needed in order to support the mission and objectives and help drive success. Then it’s having a solid understanding of the full spectrum of the people function across the entire employee life cycle and also the organizational life cycle. And then I would say deep expertise in at least two functional areas, like a lot of us may be generalists, but I think it’s important to really deeply understand two functional areas. For me that has become learning and development. And then kind of on the opposite spectrum is compensation. Third, I would say, is strong people management skills. You’re looked at for teaching others people management. And so you yourself having really strong, solid people management skills specifically also the ability to lead other senior leaders at that level. So going from a manager to the manager of managers. Professionalism and integrity, I think it goes without saying, but it’s this you are seen as the person that needs to have high, unwavering ethical standards. And the last thing I’ll say is thick skin. You can often be the complaint department, so you have to have really, really thick skin.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:32.97] I love it. And everybody that we’ve asked this question to in the CHRO series has had a little bit different response and advice. But I love yours and I definitely think that your background, as we just kind of described, it really shines through in, in your advice here, too. Let’s talk a little bit about the role of the Fractional Chief People Officer because this is not one that I’ve heard a lot about in kind of in the HR space. So tell us about what a Fractional Chief People Officer and Consultant really does for organizations.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:10:10.20] So in my current projects, I’m more or less the partial Interim Chief People Officer/Head of People for high-growth startups. Because my time is limited, or I should say I’m limiting my time and I’ll get into that in a minute. But it was purposeful for me that I needed to put in boundaries as to how many hours I work so I’m able to focus, or I want to focus on the top priorities of the company while also providing leadership, which means coaching, mentoring, and then sometimes just management to the existing team members. And the projects have come in two main ways. Either A, the organization’s grown and they hadn’t yet thought about or have hired or thinking about hiring a Chief People Person. And in this instance, I will often help them define that role and also the organization and sometimes help them hire for the role, not as an Executive Recruiter, but as actually someone who’s helping to manage the process. Then the second way is that the person who was in the role has either left or is on extended leave. And, you know, it typically takes between four to months to hire that role right now. So I am finding there’s a ton of need for interim people leaders. There’s that heightened, unprecedented awareness of the importance of the people function and it is taking a longer time. My projects have varied widely in terms of what I do, but almost always involve building foundational people practices such as career frameworks, salary structure, talent development processes and then other practices after understanding what the business needs that, including bringing the company’s culture to life.

Break: [00:12:09.84] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you were listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by the Worklogy Council. Today we’re talking about the Chief Human Resources Officer role, that CHRO role with Sung Hae Kim, but we’re focused on a Fractional Chief People Officer role. What is that? How does it work?

Break: [00:12:30.21] The Workology Council is a mastermind community for HR leaders. We are a group of HR professionals with a common goal: to succeed by leveraging the influence, resources and expertise of others on an annual basis. This will be the HR business tribe that you’ve wanted to be a part of for your entire career. Learn more and apply at WorkologyCouncil.com.

A Focus on Mission-Driven Organizations


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:57.07] Is there a company size or industry vertical that you’re finding more interest in a Fractional Chief People Officer than others?

Sung Hae Kim: [00:13:07.12] My background has been or, what, has typically been the need is for high-growth startups and, maybe that’s also where I’ve also had my interest. But I’ve been fortunate to be able to have the experience of working with companies that have a strong mission and sense of purpose. And I decided to really focus more on mission-driven organizations.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:42.24] I love that. And you are also saying that it’s taking 4 to 6 months to hire in a Chief People Officer and then they start in their role. And then really it’s another I feel like 3 to 6 months to, to ramp up. I had a friend this week. She just put in her notice. Chief People Officer at a small 1500-person organization. And the CEO was so hot, he told her that she needed a six-month notice. So that’s right in line with what you’re saying in terms of the need for a Fractional Chief People Officer, and then the timeline to be able to bring somebody into the organization.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:14:22.92] Yeah, definitely.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:25.24] So you mentioned working for mission-driven organizations. Can you talk about the maybe the steps or the situation that led you to that choice?

Sung Hae Kim: [00:14:36.11] Yeah. So for the first time in my career, I took a job because I felt it would be very lucrative. And that turned out to be a mistake. So I pressed the pause button, took time to reevaluate my own purpose in life, what is my mission in life? And decided to focus on that. And once I set that personal vision and was able to articulate this, I wrote it down, even did kind of a storyboard, a lovely opportunity to work with a nonprofit organization, just kind of happened. And that was my first consulting project as a Consultant Chief People Person.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:19.84] I love that. It’s almost like you manifested that opportunity in a way, like you were very specific in, in that, and then it was kind of fell in your lap. It sounds like.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:15:30.76] It almost feels like it was magical. But I think, you know, there’s a book called Designing Your Life where you think about what you want and they even talk about it. Just then it kind of happens like you get the word out and that happens. So that was some design to it and luck.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:49.12] I love it. Right place, right time. Set in your intentions. And then the right conversation with somebody who, who thought you would be perfect for the role. I want to ask about the differences because this is a short-term gig as a Fractional Chief People Officer and it’s for a mission-driven organization, right? So how does what you do now as a Fractional Chief People Officer differ from previous leadership roles in HR?

Sung Hae Kim: [00:16:20.57] Sung Hae Kim: For me, I think the key difference is that I am less emotional about my work because there’s it’s not a longer, long-term commitment and you’ve got more than one company you’re supporting. And so I can truly focus on providing a service. So in other words, there’s a little bit less ego on my part. I am able to maintain a healthy distance from the work that I do, and myself as the leader of the people function. As a consultant, I’m not really a leader within the company and I’m only visible to the CEO, members of the executive team and the people team and then people that I work with on a project basis. What led me to decide to work as a consultant at this time, to be open and honest, is that I experienced burnout for the first time in my career. So as the person in charge of the People Function, you are the confidant of the CEO and other executives, your own team, and countless of others who come to you for counsel. So you’re dealing with the most sensitive issues inside the company, and people are trusting you to safeguard private information and secrets. Because of that, you need to have a absolutely pristine professional record as one of the key role models, role model leaders and evangelists of the company values. I’ve also personally felt that I’ve never been able to really unravel or truly relax and be myself in front of others. And it’s, the role is also very complex and stressful, especially in the last couple of years during the pandemic, when companies were relying on the people function for guidance as to what to do. And then in every organization, I’ve experienced tremendous pressure to grow quickly, hiring at the fastest speed, regardless of the talent pool or constraints, or downsizing rapidly and efficiently.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:18:30.85] Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never worked in companies that weren’t doing either. You’re also responsible for the overall care and happiness of, of the team and, and your, your people team teaches managers how to engage with their team members. You’re responsible for compliance laws and employment practices that vary from state to state and country by country. And by the way, you’re responsible for performance management. You and your team, especially the HR business partners, keep track of development and performance. What that means for me is that my own performance must be stellar because my function is coaching leaders on how to drive engagement and performance, as well as managing people who are not performing. So as the People Head, I’ve always felt you have all of the executive leaders can’t be one of the lower performers. You’re the one responsible for helping the CEO deal with leaders who are not performing. And then finally, it goes without mentioning you’re also responsible for ensuring competitive and equitable compensation. However, and this is really ironic, I’ve personally felt it’s been difficult to talk about my own compensation, especially when I have, when I thought it was inequitable. Now, everything I just talked about actually does get me excited about the role because it is very challenging and you’re constantly learning. The challenge is the role itself did not cause my own burnout. It was on top of that, I happen to be experiencing several personal challenges at the same time within a certain time frame. They were very different, some completely unrelated issues and situations that were emotionally taxing and looking back, just really hard to manage alone.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:12.69] Thank you for sharing, by the way. I know that is a lot. And I think a lot of HR leaders are shaking their heads right now or they can absolutely relate to everything you are saying, especially in light of the last couple of years for us. We are shouldering so much and we are doing it with the expectation that we have to have all our shit together to. And it’s that’s not how life necessarily works as a human being. It might be that way as a person who’s leading an organization, but that is a lot of the weight of the world to have on one person’s shoulders who’s leading the entire people function of an organization. So as I’m thinking about all you’ve shared, I think a lot of HR leaders are like, Yes, I am dealing with this right now, or I have a toxic work environment, or I am trying to make some changes because I need more balance in my life. So what can you share with us? Maybe to help us avoid or address or work through burnout. Just that feeling that you described.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:21:27.35] Yeah, and I agree with you. It’s a great question because there is evidence that many Chief People Officers, CHROs, Heads of People are burned out for many of the reasons I talked about and more. A company that I worked with called Silver Lining recently held anonymous listening sessions about Chief People Officer burnout, and this was with leaders from various companies around the US and it was really well received. I wish I could say that you could, you should immediately inform your boss. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me because the organization still needs the work to get done. And I was also not in the best emotional state to have that conversation. What I didn’t do and what I should have done was to step aside, sort out my personal challenges as soon as I noticed that I was getting incredibly stressed. And for me, that means lack of sleep, being less approachable, so getting in my shell, and not being able to enjoy my work for the first time. So that those were indicators that I should have recognized. And then there were two, my own confidence to people that I relied on for support over the years, were also unavailable, related to the pandemic and also not, but they were going through their own issues, very acute, difficult situations themselves. So it was, it was a really unique conundrum for me. And I think I was too afraid about job stability to take a step back.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:22:59.11] But the guidance that I want to give, I hope it’s helpful, is when you are feeling burnout, try to remember what is most important to you, what are your values, why are you, why are you here, who are you as a parent, child, friend, partner, community member and realize that sometimes if you can afford it in your career, work has got to come second or third. There’s always people who can do the work. And for me, it was important to remember that, well, in the future, I’ll have to remember, that I’m not that special. I don’t need to be the hero. Someone else can do some or all the things just as well, or better than I could. But two things that helped me were, one, I worked with a therapist, and previously I would have been ashamed to admit it. But I’m not at all. It changed my life. And then, second, I attended a session called LifeForward with the Hudson Institute, where you reshape elements of your life, and I found myself with others who could empathize and support me. We supported each other. So the therapy and the support groups have changed my ability to deal with traumatic situations, and the work I’ve done on my own has led to an attitude shift that I hope leads me to being able to now do some of my best work.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:21.33] Do you think that one of your biggest fears to step away was just how this decision to leave would impact your career?

Sung Hae Kim: [00:24:31.92] Absolutely. You know, you want to have, everyone wants to have like a résumé or a LinkedIn profile that shows nice long stays at great companies and things that you succeeded. So that was one. And also just stability and financial stability was a concern. I’m a single parent, head of household, have been for a while with two kids going to college. So yeah, financial stability is also a concern.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:01.88] I think a lot of people can relate to this conversation because I have heard from a number of peers and friends in the industry who have maybe left a job, made a decision to go to a new role. Now they’re four months, six months, nine months in, and they’re realizing that it was not the right move for them. So I guess your message is it’s okay to take a pause or to look for a new opportunity if this isn’t the right fit for you, for whatever reason, personally or professionally.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:25:39.44] I agree. And what I found is people that I feel comfortable sharing my story with are also the people that I want to work with.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:49.23] I agree. I just feel really strongly that right now we’re and I don’t think, there’s anonymous sessions happening. People don’t want to, don’t want to share about they’re experiencing in this, and what we just need to understand and by you sharing on this podcast interview, we can feel like it’s, this is, we can normalize this. Feeling of burnout is happening and then maybe try to find some ways to give us some more tools, whether it’s a therapist picking up the phone and using our own EA piece of our organization, whatever it is, taking some time off, just getting some space to help us decide what, what we really want to do.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:26:31.12] Yeah, I agree.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:32.92] So my next question for you is just about your business. Like all this has happened, you have said this is not what I want to do anymore. You dove into this Fractional Chief People Officer role. How has it been for you? How are you, do you feel like it was the right decision?

Sung Hae Kim: [00:26:49.76] Yeah. The thing that I was the most afraid of is having to market myself. And I was I’m so blessed that it’s been through my projects have come through referrals. And my favorite current project is one with a company in Latin America whose mission is about helping people financially. That’s the center of their mission. And the products are developed around that mission of helping people financially. The CEO is a real visionary and a competent leader, but he’s also incredibly kind and humble and we share so many of the same values. So that’s just a joy to work with him and his company. I’m also working with a hypergrowth logistics startup for the first time, and I’m learning a great deal about this complex. But now I’m finding really interesting industry, it’s new for me. Then there’s a project where I like the CEOs and individual in their life story, and even though I’m not terribly excited about the industry, I enjoy working with them. I have said no to projects that are outside my expertise or with companies in which I can’t really relate to the mission or where I don’t sense a good chemistry or maybe values alignment with the leaders. But for now, it really works for me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:14.32] I love that and I think others need to hear that too, because I’ve been an entrepreneur for 12 years, I guess full time now? And scary as hell. But when you really do identify what your superhero, like, your secret, super-secret superpower is, the right opportunities absolutely come your way and you’re able to step into the work and the purpose of things that you were, I feel like you were really meant to do.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:28:44.63] Well, Jessica, I want to be you when I grow up.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:48.23] Well, I don’t know about that, but I love that you’re willing to talk about this. And I love that you’ve been able to jump headfirst into entrepreneurship and still serve HR as a people leader in just a new and exciting way. I think that is really, absolutely love it and something that is absolutely needed in our industry right now.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:29:12.37] Thank you so much and I enjoyed my time with you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:29:15.97] We will link to your LinkedIn profile to so, and other resources, maybe the book that you recommended also so that if people want to connect with you to maybe talk more with you about having you come into their organization or friends organization as a Fractional Chief People Officer or maybe some mentorship opportunities, I think it would be great.

Sung Hae Kim: [00:29:39.85] Yeah. Not a problem. Love mentoring. Thanks.

Closing: [00:29:44.19] It’s really interesting to delve into how a role of a Chief People Officer whose experience connects them to strategy and operations of the overall business, how that works and what we do. A CHRO or Chief People Officer role can look like a consultancy and mentorship for company leaders and HR teams. And when we are our own business, when we’re our own consultant, we can pick the types of roles and organizations and projects that we want to work on. I really appreciate Sung Hae taking the time to share her experience with us today as an entrepreneur in that Chief People Officer fractional role, but also her experience in having burnout and then working through what she needed, taking a step back to decide how she wanted to work and thrive in that HR space. I also want to thank you for joining the Workology Podcast, which is sponsored by the Workology Council. This podcast that you’re listening to is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time, you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes.

Closing: [00:30:59.19] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access life training, community, and over 100 on-demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com for more.

Connect with Sung Hae Kim.



– Sung Hae Kim on LinkedIn

– CHRO Job Description

– Designing Your Life – Book 

– Episode 352: Three Elements for Growth, Change, and Strategy With Noelle Burke, Chief People Officer at ESW

– Episode 347: Facing Global Challenges With Good Intent With Nikki Salenetri, VP of People at Gympass

– Episode 345: The Role of the CHRO in a Not-for-Profit Organization With Paul LaLonde

– Episode 338: Creating a Candid Culture and Experience at the Workplace With Nicole Roberts

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