Why don’t more CHROs become CEOs? Jacqui Curtis from the Australian Taxation Office shares her thoughts on professional credibility and HR certification.
In the hierarchy of organisations, it is rather unusual for senior HR professionals to be seen as obvious candidates for the top job: the CEO. What are the reasons for that and what has HR certification got to do with it?
Quite a lot, thinks Jacqui Curtis, who is Chief Operating Officer at the Australian Taxation Office. She has spent the bulk of her career working in human resources as manager of national programs and leadership in the human services department of the Federal Government and, before that, as the person responsible for learning and development in the Australian Public Services Commission. Long story short, she’s held some pretty senior human resources roles.
She says that if you look at the career pathways of people who have historically filled the top jobs in business, they nearly always come from the business and COO roles and are often taken up by CFOs or CIOs.
“What I’ve found is that you often get stereotyped as ‘just being HR’,” she says, and while it is disappointing that human resources is perceived this way, Curtis believes the solution lies in the hands of the profession.
“[To change that perception] you have to demonstrate that you have a strong understanding or some experience of running a business. Combine that with expertise and HR certification and you have a winning combination and a real point of difference in the value add you bring to the business.”
HR professionals should be partnering with business and playing a key role in driving and enabling strategic change through the people in the organisation, she says.
Curtis didn’t move into HR until her early 30s, having studied business management and adult education. Joining the Australian Public Services Commission in 2003 in a middle management role, her work on strategic human capital management and leadership development made her realise that taking a masters degree in public administration would give her greater scope to move into other roles in the future.
“I haven’t stopped studying, and I’m always ready to take on new challenges and add to my skills.” The point is, says Curtis, that it’s incumbent on human resources professionals to build a portfolio of skills, and HR certification is a confirmation that you have the deep understanding and knowledge to support the business to deliver on strategic outcomes.
“I joined AHRI because I think it is essential that HR is recognised in the same way as other professional streams. I encourage my team to do the same because I don’t think you can underestimate how important it is to work together to continue to position HR as a critical enabler to the business.”
Without certification, Curtis’s view is that it is very difficult to rise to the most senior management and leadership roles. Yet in many ways, human resources is ideally positioned for that top job.
“Because of our ability to look across the enterprise, HR can see challenges and opportunities that aren’t always apparent in a business function. That bird’s eye view enables you to think strategically, bring teams together and have a holistic, non-partisan view. It allows you to come up with fresh ideas and solutions and influence debates within the organisation.
“You have to be on the front foot all the time: proactive, rather than waiting to be asked. Human resources should be guiding the business and setting the agenda. That’s how your expertise as an HR professional adds value.”
Given the advantage of a ‘whole of organisation’ view, why aren’t CHROs more commonly seen as feeder roles for the COO or CEO?
Lack of confidence holds HR back, Curtis believes. “If you can say, ‘I’m an expert in workforce planning or industrial relations’, just as the legal department can declare its professional authority, you bring a level of credibility along with the credentials to the table. HR certification will boost the confidence of the whole profession and HR needs to back itself a bit more, to have the courage to say, ‘I have something to add here’.”
Curtis has led by example, telling her own staff in her previous senior HR roles that she wouldn’t be employing or promoting anyone into middle-management roles without HR certification because otherwise “it reinforces the view that it is alright to not have any expertise.”
“Can you imagine in finance or in a legal department putting someone in charge who didn’t have experience or credentials needed to do the job? But in human resources, we have tended to say: ‘We are going to put generalists in charge of our biggest organisational resource – our people – which is usually the largest expenditure for any organisation. Now go ahead and do what you want’.”
“I had a conversation only recently discussing with someone how they were going to advise people their jobs were redundant. They said, ‘Oh, we get our HR lady in; she has those difficult conversations with people, as she is so good at doing it nicely.’
“I refuse to take on that role. I will guide a manager on how to do it, I will coach them, but I am not going to do it for them. It’s condescending and it sends the message that basically human resources is there to fix your people problem – and we are not here to do that. We are strategic business partners and we are here to build the capability of leaders and managers to manage their own people, just as they manage their own finances,” says Curtis.
She finds it baffling that everyone in a business outside of human resources has a view on it. Again, she compares this “lack of respect for the professionalism of HR” to finance or legal.
“Can you imagine going into a finance department or legal office and saying ‘I’ve got a view on how you’re running your accounts or your case loads?’ and the people in that function saying, ‘Sure, we will just change what we are doing because of your view’. It just wouldn’t happen.”
To increase respect for the HR profession from outside starts by building it from within. Driving a campaign to get all HR professionals certified is the key to achieving that, says Curtis.
“Importantly, being a member of a professional association such as AHRI that is supporting and promoting best practice gives you authority. It helps you to have a more influential voice, because you have a professional body behind you and that can only work to your benefit.”
This article is an edited version. The original version appeared in the July 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Reach for the Stars.” AHRI members receive HRMonthly magazine 11 times a year. To learn more about membership options, click here.
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