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Making the leap: from chief HR officer to CEO

The skill-set demanded of modern CEOs reflects those already possessed by the HR profession. The time has never been better for senior HR professionals to strive to reach the very top.

In my thirty years as an executive director, non-exec director, CEO and management consultant, I’ve seen very few HR directors ascend to the apex of their organisation. In fact, it’s more common for the best HR execs to move on to a similar job in a larger organisation. Conversely, I have seen those in other professions climb up their company ladder with no issues.

So why don’t more HR stars become CEOs?

Always the bridesmaid…

It might not surprise you to find out that half of the world’s chief executives come from one of three backgrounds: finance, operations or marketing – according to research conducted in the UK by Robert Half (paywall), via Management Today.

The remaining half are sourced from 23 industries, ranging from legal to IT and strategy. Only five per cent of CEOs have an HR background.

I am one of a relatively small number of CEOs who took the route from HR to the top. As such I have sought to advise HR colleagues who get the feeling that they are always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

My own impression is that decision-making interviewing panels often see the HR function as necessary, but not critical to the corporate mosaic of the organisation. While this view is misguided, it strikes me that the HR profession needs to position itself more strategically and  bang its drum more loudly.

It doesn’t have to be a long way to the top

In response to the question of why more top HR execs don’t become CEOs, clichés tend to be the answer. “HR isn’t strategic enough” or “HR doesn’t have enough broad-based business acumen”. Personally, I don’t buy this line of reasoning at all. In fact, in recent decades the HR function has become more integral to business success.

Let me give a few examples:

Developing ‘talent strategy’  

This is viewed as a prime determinant of corporate success, with intellectual and human capital being viewed as increasingly important.

Get the right people in the right places; ensure you have the right talent strategy, team dynamics, and culture; and you’ll have strong foundations for success. It is chief HR officers who are at the heart of creating and delivering on an organisation’s talent strategy.

Acquiring core skills (‘soft skills’)

Modern corporate leaders are required to demonstrate the full gamut of core skills including: empathy, outstanding communication, and the ability to deliver constructive, critical feedback. These skills are attributes that have traditionally been the cornerstone of the HR function.

Creating corporate culture  

Organisational success depends on how things get done as much as what gets done. Creating the building blocks for the development of an important corporate culture is very much within the experience and skill-set of HR professionals.

Promoting diversity and equality

Legal requirements and modern corporate ethics place a significant priority on ensuring that inclusion, diversity and equality are properly prioritised. The HR profession has a proud history in being at the forefront of this agenda.

How do you make the leap?

So, what can the HR profession and individual HR professionals do to promote both the function and their roles? Here are some suggestions:

Think like a corporate animal

HR professionals should view themselves as business managers and need to continually ask: “how can I add value to the bottom line, how is what I do assisting the organisation to meet its objectives?”’ This will mean thinking less narrowly about HR as a personnel type function, but rather as a key player in enabling the organisation to reach its corporate goals.

Make sure HR is always sitting at the top table

As a CEO, I have personally always had the HR manager reporting directly to me. I recall having several finance and corporate services directors resent my “take-over” of “their” HR function. For me, the CEO’s primary role is about directing change management within the organisation and HR is integral to this process.

I also take the view that the chief HR officer should have a place at the management team’s table. HR bosses need to demonstrate to CEOs that they are indispensable and that their reach goes way beyond that of traditional personnel management.

Get qualified and experienced  

HR professionals are capable within their discipline, but how many go above and beyond? A business degree, for instance, provides knowledge of all the main corporate disciplines. In terms of gaining wider experience, HR professionals should be the first to volunteer to be seconded into any cross-discipline project teams. Here they will both pick up a broader range of skills by rubbing shoulders with secondees from other professional backgrounds, and at the same time get themselves noticed as corporate team players.

Shifting expectations

While it’s tough at times to reach the top, the future is far from bleak for HR professionals. Times really are changing. Slowly but surely the perception of the HR department as a back-office, largely administrative function, is being altered.

Over the course of my career, I have concluded that the business of leadership revolves around change management. For transformation to be sustainable, we need leaders who have skill-sets which so many able HR chief officers already possess. It is my hope that more HR professionals will take up the challenge of becoming a CEO.

The future of HR may be as a springboard to director and CEO roles. For this to happen, HR professionals need to display their aptitude for talent and culture management; a skill-set that separates them from other candidates. That said, these attributes form only part of what makes an effective CEO.

HR professionals need to also demonstrate their corporate credentials, their MBA, the seconded corporate roles and job rotations undertaken – it is these types of commitments that will provide evidence to interviewing panels that an HR director is ready to take on the role of CEO.

William Taylor is a freelance writer, consultant and public speaker. He is a former HR director, council CEO and management consultant.

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Informative article but is an MBA really necessary? I know a few CEOs with Masters in Professional Accounting and even one with a Masters of HR. Why is the MBA considered the gold standard for executives?


Very interesting. Absolutely right.I do agree that MBA and job rotation are the two key factors for HRs to reach the very top.


Can a Nurse become a doctor? Can a Plumber become a builder? Yes provided that’s their goal. Most HR people do not have the goal to become a CEO. The Truth is they would make fantastic CEO’s. MBA is a shortcut to the top. Its a great value add.

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