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Five things HR leaders should do to become the CEO



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The transition from a CHRO to a CEO is rarely seen, but there’s no reason why HR leaders can’t rise to the top. Jerene Ang analyses.

Traditionally, the HR function is seen as mundane and administrative. But with many HR leaders taking on a more strategic role in their organisations in recent years, can today’s HR leaders move up the ranks and into the CEO position and be the next Mary Barra of General Motors?

According to research by Ellie Filler and Dave Ulrich, which examined scores of C-suite candidates on 14 aspects of leadership, the traits of the CHRO are the most similar to those of the CEO – this was except for the COO (whose role and responsibilities often overlap with the CEO’s).

However, for HR leaders to make it to the top, they have to first get these five things right.

1. Empower and engage people
This is something HR should already be good at. After all, the function is not called “human resources” or, in some companies, “people team” for nothing. In most organisations today, HR is thought of as the voice of the people, the guardian of the company culture and the team builder. As Deliveroo’s general manager, Tristan Torres said, “at the end of the day, a leader needs to empower and engage with people”. A CEO has to be able to build, engage and motivate teams very much like the soccer coach analogy Barathan Pasupathi, CEO of Jetstar Asia, gave us, (“A CEO is not an active striker or defender, but a coach who gets results from the team, by motivating, strategising and getting everyone behind the team goals and aspirations.”) and who better than an HR leader to do it?

2. Know the business
In order for HR leaders to rise to the CEO position, knowing the business is crucial. Knowing the business doesn’t stop at understanding business processes and company products, it also means understanding the customers. After all, a business is unlikely to exist unless it has customers. To gain insight in these areas, HR leaders have to work closely with the other departments of the organisation such as the operations team to understand processes as well as the marketing team to understand the products and customers. One way to do it? Get your HR team involved in cross-functional projects, so they come back and share new perspectives they have learnt.

3. Speak the language of the business
Apart from engaging people, a key thing about being able to manage a business is to be able to speak the language of the business. This includes embracing the use of technology, data and analytics as well as being able to see things in terms of financial impact – an aspect many forward-thinking HR leaders have already picked up on. So the next time you talk about how many successors you have developed for the role, link it back to the money you have saved by not having to hire externally as a result.

4. Gain hands-on experience outside HR
Knowing and understanding the aspects of the business outside of HR is not enough. In order for HR leaders, who aspire to become CEOs, to really learn how to manage the business, it is critical to gain hands-on experience outside the HR function. Many L&D heads, who use the 70:20:10 model, would agree that learning happens best through experience. To gain this experience, HR leaders can make use of the career development opportunities their organisations have to take up a three to six-month stint in other functions. But what if your organisation does not currently have such a developmental opportunity? This would be a great time to bring this up. Not only would this help you in achieving your goal of becoming a CEO, it can also be used as an engagement and career development tool further down the hierarchy, as well as help the different functions of the organisation work better together.

5. Strike a balance between employees and the business
After checking off the four points above, a key thing HR leaders have to note is that as a CEO with a HR background, it is crucial to strike the right balance between the voice of the people and the business goals. As Jacob George, president of Asia and the Middle East at SIRVA Worldwide Relocation & Moving, put it, if you are too skewed to the people side and unwilling to make tough decisions, then you will have a very loyal employee workforce, but not the desired business results. And, if it’s the other way around, you might find the organisation having problems with retaining employees.

With these five skills and a bit of luck, there’s no reason why HR leaders can’t rise to the top of the organisation.

Photo / 123RF



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Jerene Ang
Senior Journalist
Human Resources Magazine Singapore
From knowing almost nothing about HR to being able to hold meaningful conversations with industry leaders, Jerene reads, writes and sources for HR stories when not spending her time sleeping or playing with her dog.

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