Getting the top job

Why aren’t more human resources execs appointed to CEO positions?
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2013

Question: What will it take to have more senior HR professionals appointed to CEO roles in the future?

Answer: While many organizations pay lip service to notions like “our people are our greatest assets,” the people most responsible for a company’s people agenda rarely make it to the top job. That’s particularly puzzling, since studies show CEOs typically spend up to one-half of their time on people issues.

Over the years, many have commented that senior HR practitioners are typically not promoted to the position of CEO or an equivalent. Instead, the route to the top more typically follows a path from other functions such as finance, marketing or operations.

While there are a number of reasons for that, there are signs things may be improving for senior HR practitioners.

Many of the reasons why chief human resources officers (CHROs) are seldom appointed to CEO positions are based on the clichés we’ve all heard over the years: “HR doesn’t understand the business,” “HR doesn’t impact the bottom line” and “the best and brightest don’t go into HR.”

‘Best and brightest’ going into HR

Partially because of fallout from the global financial crisis and the poor economy, fewer bright and ambitious business school graduates are going into traditional fields such as consulting or investment banking these days. Some are even deciding to go into HR.

Why? For one thing, HR has finally started to be seen as a business discipline in its own right. Leaders in other business functions are beginning to realize the importance of people issues.

Young people are beginning to make a conscious decision to major in HR during their undergraduate education, as opposed to simply “falling into” the field accidentally. We are also increasingly enhancing our business knowledge — and we’re frequently obtaining our HR knowledge through business degrees and MBA programs.

While not everyone starts out wanting to go into HR, it’s also quite helpful that HR is now recognized as an academic discipline in its own right. Gone are the days when people could take on senior HR roles without ever having taken an HR course.

I don’t believe there’s any truth to the stereotype — if there ever was — that incompetent people are often appointed to HR roles in the mistaken belief they’re unlikely to do any harm there.

With employers increasingly recognizing the value of their people — and the fact that employee compensation is often the single largest expense at many businesses — organizations simply can’t afford to appoint buffoons to the HR function.

Changes to HR’s focus

With human resources becoming more strategic and actually having a proverbial “seat at the table” at many organizations, it is likely we will be seeing more HR people appointed to CEO roles in the future.

That is likely to be especially true in organizations that take a strategic approach to managing talent.

It’s also true HR often has more business savvy and is now focused on the bottom line. Have you ever noticed how there aren’t as many “touchy-feely” types in human resources anymore?

The discipline is much more about business results than getting in touch with your feelings these days.

That’s no accident, because the tendency to view the HR function through the paradigm of human resources management or human capital management — as opposed to personnel — means there’s much less confusion around who HR is ultimately there to serve.

In case there is any doubt, HR’s primary accountability is to the employer.

That’s not to say we don’t recognize the value of culture and effective people skills, but the days of HR being seen as the planners of company picnics are largely gone.

How to go about becoming CEO

So, how should a particularly ambitious and business-savvy CHRO go about becoming a succession candidate for an organization’s top job?

First of all, it’s important to work for a company that believes strongly in its people, where human resources are viewed as a competitive advantage for the organization. The truth is, while some organizations are sales or marketing-focused, others are more people-focused.

The HR function itself needs to have a strategic orientation and be highly respected by the CEO and board of directors. If that isn’t already the case, the CHRO needs to work towards making that a reality.

An aspiring CEO can also help herself land the top job by acquiring the right types of education and training in business and leadership. MBA programs, executive development and coaching programs can help in that regard, as does having a good mentor.

If a CHRO sits on an executive management committee alongside its most senior executives, she can also make a name for herself by getting involved in multidisciplinary business issues and solving tough organizational problems — particularly if they aren’t seen as being pure human resources issues.

Gaining some line management experience at a senior level can also be helpful before throwing your hat into the ring for the top job. Fortunately, HR practitioners are often in a good position to take on such positions, being familiar with various leadership concepts and best practices in people management.

Brian Kreissl is managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information on Carswell’s HR products visit www.carswell.com.

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