Why HR leaders make the best CEOs
Engagement 4 minute read

Why HR leaders make the best CEOs

Rise | February 25, 2016

It might seem like a bold claim, but with people-skills and knowledge to back up their years of experience, we aregue that HR leaders make the best CEOs. Continue reading to learn why.

Forget fortune cookies and tarot cards: when it comes to forecasting the future of HR, we trust nothing more than the word of renowned researcher, Dave Ulrich. He argues that the next generation of CEOs will have a strong people and culture background—and given recent success stories like GM’s Mary Barra, it’s starting to look like he’s right. In fact, Ulrich’s research suggests that Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) have more in common with the business-minded CEO than you might think.

Comparing CEOs to four other staff types, he found that CHROs had the most similar personality profile, in terms of leadership style and stress responses. For some, this will come as no surprise. CHROs and other people and culture professionals have always possessed the soft skills necessary to succeed as a CEO: someone who has spent years both welcoming and terminating employees clearly knows the art of careful messaging. That same reputation for being a ‘people person,’ however, has traditionally prevented senior HR professionals from moving into other roles—and specifically, into the corner office. A CEO, after all, needs to have a thorough understanding of day-to-day business operations in addition to strong communication skills.

Until recently, this kind of strategic planning and hard data analysis was considered outside of HR’s domain. Those in this field have been seen as administrators only, communicating the decisions that people above them have made. With no front-line experience or executive power, how can a CHRO hope to become their business’s next CEO? The thing is, the responsibilities of senior people and culture professionals are changing swiftly—that’s even reflected in shifting job and department titles. For those with board-of-executives-aspirations, the future of HR looks particularly bright.

More than ever, CHROs are advising high-level leadership. That’s because companies are recognising people are way more than resources to be consumed and because senior people and culture pros are now involved in the kind of big picture planning a CEO needs to succeed.

New responsibilities for a changing role

The growth of predictive people analytics, for example, means that people and culture professionals must now translate massive datasets into guidelines for optimised business practices. Those in the field can point to various metrics when making decisions or determining policies, evidence that tends to resonate more with high-level leadership. This is the future of HR—a department filled with modern tools, practically applied.

Social media is another one of those modern tools. Tweet, pin, and favourite: if you want to be a part of the future of HR, you’ll have to do it all. These days, CHROs and other people and culture professionals are expected to manage extensive social media campaigns at their companies, anticipating trends that a business might choose to capitalise on. As a result, they’re seen as forward-thinking and ahead of the curve. This kind of creative analysis provides a solid foundation for a position in high-level leadership.

Corporate culture can be difficult to describe and even harder to create—but people and culture professionals are stepping up to the task. From determining policies on telecommuting or flex hours to designing an onboarding process, it now falls on them to establish a company culture that makes sense in terms of the organisation’s business targets (and that’s reflected in new job titles, like Chief People Officer or Director of Employee Experience). That means people and culture professionals are directly involved with strategic business planning—their focus is split between customers and shareholders, as well as team members. Since the future of HR demands an ability to balance priorities and perspectives, that sounds like CEO prep to us!

Moving on up

The future of HR may be as a stepping stone to high-level leadership and ultimately, a seat at the head of the table. When that interview comes, CHROs and other people and culture professionals need to emphasise their aptitude for talent and culture management, a skill that sets them apart. Keep in mind, however, that a people and culture background is only part of what makes an exceptional candidate. Experiment with job rotations to ensure you’re the most prepared when opportunity arrives. Soon enough, you’ll move from CHRO to CEO.

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