Look around your leadership team — who is more likely to be the next CEO? I bet you the majority of responses would point to the chief financial officer, chief operating officer or someone in sales/marketing. Probably a small percentage would ever consider the CHRO as first thought. Why is that?
Last year, I had the opportunity of speaking with Leena Nair, the former CHRO of Unilever. Her confidence, career experience, strategic thinking and poise was unforgettable. A few months later, I read the inspiring news of her appointment as the CEO of Chanel. Likewise, Mary Barra, current CEO of General Motors, was once vice president of HR. This got me thinking. Can more CHROs become CEOs of large corporations? What benefits could this bring to the future of work and HR reinvention?
Business leaders continue to face the challenging task of managing changes in operating business models, mental health, employee fatigue and the VUCA environment. The role of HR is rapidly shifting from basic administrative and employee champion initiatives to influencing, decision making, and creating alignment between company strategy and the workforce.
How can more CEOs look to CHROs as successors?
The need for strong soft leadership skills is increasing, and as companies become more global and diverse, succession planning must remain a top priority.
1. Conquer the bias.
When HR leaders are relegated to mere administrative or management tasks and held accountable only for lagging (not leading) indicators on the company’s scorecard, it is hard to see the CEO’s potential in them. Today, HR leaders continue to be key players in leading change and transformation, managing people and turning big data into actionable insights that build trust with key stakeholders and deliver business performance. CHROs are often able to take on the CEO role because they are already familiar with the inner workings of the company. They know the culture and values, have good business acumen and understand the importance of employee satisfaction as a competitive advantage.
CHROs are typically excellent communicators with strong people skills, qualities essential for both internal and external stakeholder management. They have a deep understanding of the laws; know how to attract, develop and retain their human capital; are experienced in managing change and driving transformation; and are accustomed to dealing with ambiguous and complex problems. Unfortunately, many organizations still treat HR departments as admin custodians and caretakers of office housework.
2. Establish hybrid HR career development.
From my conversations with many business leaders, I found out that finance, sales or brand marketing functions tend to have the most robust career development and succession planning system in place. Team members take professional courses and certifications during their careers and rotate assignments frequently. High potential talents are identified early and assigned mentors and career sponsors to develop their C-level skills.
Look at the HR department in some organizations. What you may find is a short-staffed team that must defend its yearly budget. These employees likely have longer tenure in roles mostly built within the HR function, rarely any business-related role rotations and no clear training/development program to accelerate C-level executive skills. I remember being criticized by colleagues when I took short detours from my HR career to do broadening assignments in branding and supply chain management. Yet, those experiences were invaluable. For companies looking to disrupt the traditional ways of developing potential CEOs, invest and sponsor your HR leaders.
3. Develop a solid succession management strategy.
A robust succession planning process identifies future business needs, critical skills and roles, and potential leaders to fill those roles. Companies should no longer apply a one-size-fits-all approach to succession planning. Be more innovative and flexible to find the right candidates instead of simply promoting the next in line. Employees are demanding better treatment at work, non-toxic environments and a sense of purpose. Companies that outlast others will be run by leaders who have a good balance of business and people skills.
4. Plan before you need to.
The most common misconception about succession planning is that organizations should wait until a crisis or disaster strikes before they begin thinking of new leadership. A recent study showed that approximately 80% of new CEOs are internal successors and the “heir-apparents” tend to have better performance, are paid more and are less likely to quit. Companies that successfully blend leadership development and succession planning systems use a combination of learning experiences, mentor networks, manager-facilitated workshops, a supportive culture and high-potential candidates’ exposure to senior management. When assessing potential CEO successors, don’t ignore the HR function. Take a chance. Invest in and groom promising talents with challenging diverse assignments that boost needed competence and confidence.
5. Own your ambition.
Since it takes two to tango, this article would not be complete without a tip for HR leaders interested in becoming CEOs. As the global market dynamics shift and new technologies are developed, HR professionals are required to do more than ever before. Those with a good balance of business acumen, strategic planning, leadership and people skills can have a shot at the highest seat possible. Today, many organizations place a lid on HR careers while some HR leaders still struggle with establishing their credibility or communicating that they have a portfolio of skill competence to get into the horse race. Own your ambition. Grow beyond your comfort zone. Find career champions in your organization and show interest. Volunteer as CEO/COO in personal and professional networks, gather experience and put those transferrable skills to use. Don’t be afraid to ask for broadening assignments or experiential projects (at any career level) that can accelerate your career. It always seems impossible until someone becomes unstoppable. Let that someone be you.
Is the trend of CHROs transitioning to CEOs starting to pick up? Only time will tell. Stories of CHROs becoming CEOs are on the rise, as CHROs have the much-needed skills needed for today’s CEOs. Of course, not every CHRO is suited to be a CEO, but for those who have the right mix of skills and experience, becoming a CEO is a real possibility. HR careers should not be pegged to just being a coach and confidant to CEOs. Pass the baton.