Does the chief HR officer belong in the top spot?

chief HR officer
Lyn Goodear


written on July 18, 2016

COOs, CEOs and the chief HR officer share a striking number of traits. So why don’t more CHROs get the top job?  AHRI CEO Lyn Goodear has some thoughts.

I would like to commend for your reading an interview HRMonline conducted with the acting chief operating officer (COO) at the Australian Tax Office, Jacqui Curtis. Jacqui is a long-time AHRI member, was previously the head of human resources at the ATO, and has spent much of her career working in human resources.

One of the observation’s Jacqui made in the interview was that because human resources is positioned to get a bird’s-eye view of all departments in an enterprise, it is well placed to think strategically, bring teams together and take a holistic, non-partisan approach across the organisation.

That unique position, she said, makes human resources ideally positioned for the top job. Yet she notes that a chief HR officer (CHRO) is not commonly seen as feeder roles for COO or CEO.

Jacqui’s view aligns with the research perspectives of Korn Ferry partner Ellie Filler and University of Michigan professor Dave Ulrich, as published in the Harvard Business Review in December 2014. They looked at C-suite positions such as CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, CIO and CHRO, and noted that after CEOs and COOs, CHROs were the next best paid with an average salary base of $574,000 – 33 per cent more than chief marketing officers (CMOs).

Filler and Ulrich also looked at leadership styles, thinking styles, and emotional competency or how human resources “deals with such things as ambiguity, pressure and risk taking.” They found a striking similarity of traits among executives in the CEO, COO and chief HR officer roles.

With some provisos, the researchers thought companies should more often consider CHROs when filling the CEO role. One proviso was the need to have worked in roles other than human resources. In that regard, they noted that the present General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy had, in the past, run the human resources operations of their respective companies, among other roles that required a balance of technical and ‘softer’ people leadership skills.

Closer to home are business leaders such as Ross Miller, the general manager of St George Bank’s retail banking, who has previously led human resources in most divisions of the Westpac Group, and Professor Carol Dickenson, the senior deputy vice-chancellor at the Queensland University of Technology, whose background includes senior human resources roles.

Professor Dickenson and Ross Miller are now in more general group executive roles and are seen as part of a pipeline of senior roles beyond human resources. They are also members of AHRI’s National Certification Council, the body overseeing the certification of human resources practitioners.

Like Jacqui Curtis, they have since moved to very senior executive positions from human resources, and they both sit strongly behind AHRI’s certification strategy to build respect from within. In turn, this leads to human resources certified practitioners being seen as possessing a commensurate degree of influence, authority and gravitas.

This article is an edited version. The original version appeared in the July 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “If the cap fits, wear it.” AHRI members receive HRMonthly magazine 11 times a year. To learn more about membership options, click here

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One thought on “Does the chief HR officer belong in the top spot?

  1. This interview by Ms Lyn Goodear brings out quite relevant facts for the HR community to ponder over. No doubt, CHROs with holistic view of management can be more successful in the top roles. However, it is also true that an HR professional need to think differently to qualify for the top slot. Many a times, we people just confine ourselves to HR boundaries without understanding the business needs. We thus undermining importance of other functions. Whereas, we must view business from a wider perspective if we mean real value add besides aspiring for the top role.
    Having headed businesses in the top roles in two organizations (which were more of technical roles) and having been number two in an MNC, I know we (HR people) can contribute much better provided we become good business leaders in shortest possible time. First time when I was given additional responsibility as Operations Head in a printing machine assembly unit) besides HR, I could understand the gaps in my perspective as HR Head and Operations Head. Once tuned to the needs of the operations’ in this dual role, I felt an HR person could improve productivity at a faster pace.

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