The CEO’s Dirty Little Secret: The HR Exec Need Not Apply for My Job

The CEO’s Dirty Little Secret: The HR Exec Need Not Apply for My Job

Why aren’t chief human resources officers given the same respect as fellow members of the C-Suite? The HR Chief may have a seat at the table, but not much of a voice. This is perhaps never more apparent than when the subject of succession must be addressed by the CEO and the board. When members of the C-Suite are evaluated for CEO succession potential, 99 times out of 100 they look right past the HR executive.

And therein lies the dirty little secret of the corner office: human resources is seen as helpful in keeping the company going, but not something that gets it moving. Chief executives see HR as a necessary function within the corporate mosaic, but not as a critical one.

There is plenty of blame to go around, starting with CEOs who have exercised far too much of a forgiveness factor when hiring and evaluating HR leadership, and accepting passive talent that would not have been tolerated in other corporate leadership positions. Likewise, too many HR professionals have been far too complacent, accepting a career trajectory that more often than not has been dead-ended.

As one of a small number of CEOs who took the unusual path to the corner office from HR, I have counseled HR executives for years on the conundrum of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” My motivation in addressing this issue is genuine, and while slightly personal it is also immensely practical. There are compelling reasons to address the issue of how to make the HR chief a legitimate player, with a role that is additive and not merely administrative.

First, changes in the workforce, largely due to demographics and globalization, would suggest that tomorrow’s corporate leaders will require so-called “soft” skills like empathy, communication, and the ability to deliver constructively critical feedback — paradoxically those skills most difficult to acquire — and these are precisely the skills that good human resource professionals must have. Additionally, intellectual and human capital will be ever-increasing pieces of an organization’s competitive advantage, and managing them will be essential. Finally, corporate culture — how things get done — will be as important as what gets done.

These changes are coming fast. As the Conference Board reminds us in “Leadership Essentials for 2020 and Beyond,” millennials are just about ready to run the show. This is the cohort whose relationships are based on a digital connection, who would rather text than talk, and default to social media for all kinds of interactions and information. As a result, the corporate culture shift of the ensuing decade will be dramatic and swift.

Companies that are unprepared will experience accompanying turbulence that will adversely affect service delivery, operational efficiency, and the bottom line. Yet all this means that the next decade will be fertile career ground for talented HR executives, too many of whom have been undervalued or passed over in years gone by, and will give companies the opportunity to leverage these assets.

Chief Executive Officers and their respective boards have to begin by recruiting human resource executives with the energy, drive, and talent to be contenders for roles with genuine strategic influence, whether those be the top job or one that carries more than an impressive title.  And of course to recruit such people, CEOs and boards have to demonstrate a willingness and a way for a talented HR person to excel and rise.

One way to do this is a developmental rotation that offers internal, high-potential employees exposure to various parts of the company, including HR. Xerox did this more than 20 years ago with Ann Mulcahy, who served as Vice President of Human Resources (1992-95) and eventually as Chief Executive from 2001 to 2009, turning around a company on the verge of bankruptcy. Mulcahy’s varied experience at Xerox included stints in sales, as a chief of staff, and in customer operations.

Once the Human Resources function is viewed as a critical part of the company, internal high-potential employees will be sufficiently intrigued by it to pursue and embrace such an opportunity. And HR professionals have to be exposed to other “hard” facets of the business, such as finance, sales, and operations. This will enhance their careers and ultimately make them more valuable to the people they serve.

None of this will happen overnight. You cannot turn the Queen Mary on a dime, and we have to get past the “chicken and egg” factor here: There aren’t enough prospective and promising potential CEOs going into HR; and talented high-potential executives rarely add Human Resources into their career plan because they don’t see it as providing the right opportunities.  But CEOs and boards have the power to insist that a different course be charted; HR professionals have the know-how to do so.

The challenges and opportunities will vary according to the size of the company. Large companies have more options for cross-fertilization and likely more sophisticated training programs and a greater emphasis on strategy. Yet mid-size companies are more likely to have the flexibility and malleability to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

As you and your board begin to ponder succession, it may be too late for your successor to be someone with an HR background or exposure. But you can ensure your successor will be someone who is open to such ideas and can start to move things in the right direction. Also, you can make sure that candidates for your job have some training in and aptitude for the softer skills.

Until HR is viewed not just as a function but as an asset, and is populated with and led by multifaceted talent, companies will find themselves ill-prepared to navigate future waters. And in just a few years those waters could prove treacherous.


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