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How CHRO positions could become a stepping stone for CEO roles

Serving as a CHRO is a ‘phenomenal training ground’ for would-be chief executives, said one former SVP of people turned co-founder–CEO.
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Grant Thomas

· 5 min read

In the kingdom of C-suite executives, CHROs have traditionally ruled over their own domains, communicating business decisions to their workforces like emissaries for King CEO Big Boss XIV. But as the pandemic upended the ways people live and work, HR leaders became less siloed and more integral to their organizations’ business functions, Dan Schawbel, managing partner of HR consultancy and research firm Workplace Intelligence, explained to HR Brew.

“Compared to even several years ago, you’re seeing HR partner with IT, communications, and facilities management to focus on employee experience. How people view HR is much different than it was before Covid,” he said.

HR’s evolution predates pandemic-era workplace upheaval, but a few recent examples underscore how tenure as a CHRO can translate to a position on top of the corporate hierarchy. Both Leena Nair, Chanel’s global CEO, and Mary Barra, General Motors’ chair and CEO, spent time leading HR departments before eventually ascending to their current positions. Former Google SVP of people Laszlo Bock also co-founded the HCM platform Humu and helmed the organization for five years as CEO. Bock, who last month stepped away from CEO duties but will continue as executive chair of Humu’s board, explained that for aspiring corporate chiefs, a stopover in HR can provide a “phenomenal training ground.”

The challenges HR executives have faced since 2020 have made it easier to envision a future in which CHROs commonly graduate to the chief executive’s perch in the coming years. But a brief stint in HR isn’t a seamless incubator for grooming CEO talent, Thom Wright, global “master coach” at career coaching consultancy Ezra Coaching, explained. Different companies have different needs and expectations for their leaders.

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“What does this company need at the CEO level? What are they looking for in a CEO?” he asked. As it happens, those answers vary across the board.

People leaders wanted. Current economic trends call for leaders with a human touch, argued Schawbel. “There’s so many unfilled roles. It’s hard to retain employees and there’s a decentralized, hybrid workforce, [so] CEOs have to become more people focused.”

Pandemic turbulence drew many CEOs’ attention toward traditional HR issues, namely combating attrition: Deloitte and Fortune’s Summer 2022 CEO Survey found that 83% of CEOs sought to mitigate the Great Resignation by providing greater flexibility when it came to hours and location, while 62% prioritized “training leaders in how to better empower and engage employees.”

Meanwhile, workforces have, for example, grown more vocal in respect to social issues and have clamored for greater work–life balance in recent years. HR leaders have been on the ground floor of this change in workplace dynamics—and it hasn’t gone unnoticed in corporate boardrooms, according to Bock. “Companies are being faced with employee related issues, whether it’s social justice [or] diversity and inclusion. Boards specifically are going to increasingly look for executives who have a major in the people area,” he said.

Bock explained that HR leaders “see all the hardest organizational issues that a company has…a bunch of them, all the time…it’s a phenomenal training ground because of the velocity and intensity of people experiences you have. It will make somebody a much, much stronger CEO.”

Not all CEOs are cut from the same cloth. CEOs are often appointed to put out fires, but if those fires are sparked by, for example, financial or operational issues, CHROs might not always wield the best retardant. “You get hired as CEO because the board decides there’s a really big problem that the company needs to fix. And they look for somebody who’s really good at fixing that one particular problem,” Bock explained.

Plus, some CHROs aren’t HR natives—they’re merely burnishing their résumés before graduating to another stop in the C-suite. For Wright, this means not all CHROs are going to bring the qualitative approach demanded of so many CEOs today.

“If we’re making the assumption that there are people in the HR function that are aware of all of the different aspects of navigating culture, then yes, that works,” he said. “But a lot of companies have put people in [CHRO] roles that don’t understand that.”

Ultimately, the trajectory of CHRO to CEO is still a fleetingly rare phenomenon, one that Bock highlighted with simple math: “A dramatic increase would be going from one in 100 to three in 100” CHROs becoming CEOs, he explained. Still, amid a glut of cultural changes and shifting workplace norms, it might not be so outlandish to think that in the coming years, the CEO pipeline will be dotted with a few more CHROs.

“Covid really changed the perception of HR,” Schawbel said. “I think that in terms of roles, responsibilities…[the] ability to move from CHRO to the CEO is definitely there.”—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

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Products issued by Minnesota Life Insurance Company or Securian Life Insurance Company.

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