The road to the top

HR professionals need more than the basics to reach C-suite
By Gary Mearns
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/10/2012

The path to a senior human resources position — be it CHRO or vice-president of HR — is not a clear one, or an easy one.

In the past, technical experience in a few of the traditional functional areas of HR would often suffice. Managing a recruitment or staffing department, heading up a compensation and benefits function and possibly gaining some labour relations exposure at the bargaining table all contributed significantly to the expertise needed for a senior HR role.

But that was 20 years ago. The complexity of most large organizations today is such that additional experience, education and competencies play a much greater role in determining suitability for candidates for the executive suite.

The top five competencies for HR leaders in Canada, according to the 2010 report What Senior HR Leaders Need to Know from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), are: strategic thinking, effective communication, persuasiveness or influence, leading change and credibility.

These speak to requirements more related to contributions to the business than to the technical knowledge associated with the HR function.

There is still a need to possess up-to-date knowledge of “the state-of-the-art of human resource management,” according to David Ulrich in his 2005 interview in the Conference Board of Canada’s Organizational Performance Review. Such knowledge is most appropriately gained through a combination of formal education provided by a university degree in business or human resource management, and work experience directly in the HR field.

Variations on experience

Developing the competencies needed for senior HR roles requires several years’ experience with responsibility normally associated with a director role, as well as additional education or experience. Both generalist and specialist experience contribute to the development of candidates aspiring for senior HR positions. In-depth subject matter knowledge in the core HR management functions of talent acquisition, learning and development, and total rewards build the credibility needed to be effective and respected at most organizations.

It is also important for a CHRO to have labour relations experience related to collective bargaining and contract administration, along with a good understanding of grievance and arbitration processes.

However, it is becoming more critical for a senior HR leader to understand the business of an organization. Ideally, the opportunity to work in line positions involving staff supervision could provide some of that first-hand experience.

Education, guidance

The demands associated with obtaining an MBA degree, along with the broad range of business topics in these programs, provide additional knowledge for an HR professional to converse with others at the executive table. As a result, senior HR executives must be well-versed in a broad range of subject areas including finance, marketing, logistics, risk management, social responsibility and environmental issues.

Most individuals who have reached senior-level roles in HR benefit from the support and guidance of others, such as mentors. They help aspiring HR professionals avoid the missteps that can limit career advancement — such as misreading interactions, inappropriate communications, a lack of understanding of internal politics or incomplete problem analysis.

Solid contributions

Anyone occupying a senior HR role in today’s complex business environment has to be able to make a contribution to the organization by:

• continuously monitoring the external environment, anticipating the risks for the organization and preparing responses to address the challenges

• bringing initiatives forward that will contribute to the success of the organization

• providing leadership and guidance to the senior executives of the organization on addressing HR challenges

• being willing to courageously challenge the status quo and make the right decisions in the face of adversity

• using technology to provide responsive, more effective solutions to human resources issues and challenges (“fast” HR)

• building human and intellectual capacity.

This requires an aspiring HR professional to continually research and assess the trends in the external market and within the human resources field. Upgrading education, attending conferences, enrolling in courses, reading industry articles and monitoring legislative changes are all critical to staying current on HR topics.

Failure to stay current with trends in HR can be a primary contributor to being passed over for a career advancement opportunity. One of the best ways to assist in maintaining a current level of knowledge is to teach a human resources class at a local university or college.

The journey to the role of CHRO or vice-president of HR should involve a broad range of experience, a solid educational foundation, successful management of challenging projects, a willingness to take risks, strong analytical and decision-making skills, an ability to deal with organizational politics, a strong work ethic and support from family and colleagues.

A willingness to take on new roles and challenges and a positive outlook will also help you advance — along with a sense of humour and supportive CEO.

Gary Mearns is vice-president of human resources at Federated Co-operatives in Saskatoon. He can be reached at or, for more information, visit

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