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Why HR Managers Make the Best CEOs

Posted by Chris Fields

HR Managers Make the Best CEOs

Since as far back as you can imagine, Human Resource professionals have wanted a seat at the table. Which table you ask? They want a seat at the boardroom table in the C-suite, also known as the executive table. Many HR professionals have spent a lifetime in pursuit of this prestigious seat; however, it seems that just recently companies have allowed HR into the boardroom as a strategic and an equal partner. Lately, CHROs are becoming CEOs. We wrote more about this subject in this article. That is not a good thing. It’s the best thing and here’s why.

Have you thought about what makes a great CEO? There is no college curriculum to become a CEO, and, in fact, some of the most successful CEOs never even finished college. Take Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, for example. And, there are other CEOs who did finish college like Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, and Warren Buffett. There is no blueprint to becoming a CEO, but there is research linking the role of HR to that of CEOs.

Ellie Filler, senior client partner in the Swiss office of the executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry, who specializes in placing Chief Human Resource Officers with global companies did some research. Filler noticed a shift in recruiting requests and decided to consider it further. Many of Filler’s clients wanted executives with high-level leadership abilities and strategic implementation experience. Filler investigated the CHRO’s role and qualities with help from world renowned HR consultant and professor, Dave Ulrich from the University of Michigan. Much of Dave’s work in Human Resources is the cornerstone of HR university programs worldwide.

They analyzed all C-level positions, including CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, and CIO. You can read more about their research here. Of all the analysis and research performed, there is one piece that stands out among the rest. It seems that Filler and Ulrich found that the most desirable CEO traits, matched up extremely well to the traits of the CHRO. Take a look at the graph below.

This should come as no surprise to Human Resource professionals because no one understands the entire business like HR. As you can notice, the CHRO scores a high position in all three leadership, thinking, and emotional competencies.

Human Resources are often tasked with learning more about the marketing side, the financial aspects, the branding objectives, and the communications of the entire company.  All of this is in addition to HR’s traditional roles like recruitment, talent management, employee relations, benefits, performance, health, wellness, and compensation. We wrote in this article why HR can make a difference in strategic planning.

To further examine why the HRO or HRM would make a successful CEO, just look at these five HR professionals who became CEOs of major companies.

  1. Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox (2001 – 2009)
  2. Bernard Fontana, CEO of Areva (2015)
  3. Lisa M. Weber, President of Metlife (2004 – 2010)
  4. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors (2014 – Present)
  5. Nigel Travis, CEO of Dunkin’ Brands Group (2009 – Present) (source)

Notice anything about this group of former HR executives who made it to the top spot?  Check out the dates. They are all very recent. Think back to the early 2000s. Businesses were in bad shape. The U.S. stock market had crashed, and many companies were trying to hold on and regain their competitive position. To do that, successful companies leveraged their HR departments to help motivate and train employees.

Over the next few years, as companies relied heavily on Human Resources, those in the profession started to get more opportunities to show their value. For instance, Ford Motor Company famously worked with HR to avoid bankruptcy, which enabled the company to take advantage of the government bailout and turn around the business. Soon after, companies like Zappos and Google started to emerge as job seekers’ employers of choice. The CEOs of both companies openly discussed the extremely important role HR played in helping them reach the top of their class.

One of the most recent and best examples is Mary Barra of GM.  Having worked for GM for over 20 years in HR, she was appointed the CEO when the company was embattled in one of the biggest corporate ethics failures in modern history, the ignition switch scandal.  Barra took ownership and resolved the legal action against the company. She reinforced quality standards of the highest level and is now poised to become the most influential CEO in GM’s history making her one of the best examples of why HR executives make the best CEOs.

What do you think about the HR’s role as it relates to that of a CEO? Tell us in the comments below, and, with the help of eSkill Assessments tests, you could identify the top traits needed for success in your company.

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About Chris Fields

Author

Chris Fields is an HR professional and expert resume writer with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant. He is the curator of two websites: CostofWork.com and ResumeCrusade.com, and contributes HR-focused content to many others, including PerformanceICreate.com, eSkill.com and SmartRecruiters.com.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Kelly Anderson March, 14, 2017

    That same reputation for being a “people person” has traditionally prevented senior HR professionals from moving into other roles. A CEO, after all, needs to have a thorough understanding of day-to-day business operations and financials in addition to strong communication skills.

  • Eric S. March, 14, 2017

    HR typically serves both the board of directors and the CEO. So if they manage to learn as much as they can about the business processes, they can surely be the next choice for a company leader.

  • Olivia K. March, 14, 2017

    Apple’s Steve Jobs had a technical background, so he ran a tech business. Why would an HR director want to run an IT business if their interest is in people? What I am trying to say is that it is very important that the domain of the company is something that the next HR CEO will feel comfortable leading.

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