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Nov
13 2011

Can HR Executives Become CEOs?

Syndicated from: balance-AND-results

Following up on last week it seems appropriate to ask if HR execs can reasonably become CEOs. Everyone sees a slur against HR executives in the fact that few have so far ended up as CEOs. Interesting that when we note not enough women in CEO roles, today most of us don’t blame women as much as companies. Similar ideas apply to HR execs regardless of gender.  HRPA called attention to a feature article in HR Magazine from the UK that at first glance seems to cover the subject thoroughly. But we need to look twice. To start with the idea that “few HR execs become CEOs” has to be by comparison, since the truth is few people of any sort become CEOs. In this case, perhaps the measure is few in comparison to CFOs who rise so frequently that nearly 50% of CEOs today seem to come from that function – perhaps not a surprise in a time of economic upheaval despite the fact that it appears many financially-oriented executives were at the bottom of our recent problems to begin with. You have to love the article’s opening line, reminiscent of Fast Company’s “Why We Hate HR” – “Would it be a strategic, forward-thinking utopia [if HR took on the CEO role] – or a backwater that focused on tissues, teabags and time and attendance?” I think this describes part of the problem – along the lines of saying the biggest disability so-called disabled people have is the opinions of the abled. One of the biggest disabilities of HR executives is the outright desire of other executives to paint them as concerned primarily about “tissues, teabags and time and attendance.” If true, it’s almost inevitably because that’s what the CEO and the organization demand and limit HR to. More often it’s what others want everyone to believe so they don’t have to accept suggestions from HR or face them as competitors for senior roles. The article goes on to point out that few HR people end up as CEOs of big operations, but some do, of whom some make mistakes – what a surprise – ignoring the fact these mistakes are similar to the mistakes other appointees make – over-spending, etc. In the article this is naturally attributed to lack of “business acumen” (but no comment about how many other CEOs make the same mistakes, presumably showing an equal lack of business acumen). Then follow some lengthy bits about how necessary it is for career HR people who aspire to CEO roles to get some profit and loss experience in some other function. That certainly fits with today’s view that leadership development for all types of top roles requires rotation through a series of assignments judiciously chosen to provide perspective and experience in dealing with varied types of situations including failure, turnarounds, P&L, functional and more. Quite a few organizations now see experience in the HR role as critical for future leaders who otherwise may not be aware of the huge scope and importance of this territory and its many potential pitfalls. So the article wavers on to a somewhat shaky lack of conclusion about whether HR people can or can’t expect to succeed as CEOs, with more examples of those who have than those who haven’t (it is an HR magazine article after all). One interesting aside from the main thrust is the question of whether they don’t get to be CEO because they don’t want to. Again one might well ask if this is true of other department heads as well. Everyone sees CEO tenure tending to be short, CEOs being criticized and fired for nearly every variation of mistake it’s possible to make and the incredible hours and other commitments CEOs are expected to make, often to the detriment of family and having a life in general. Of course there’s always a line up to be CEO, but never the entire or even majority of the executive team. My guess is that many HR VPs get to see up close just how complex, difficult to master and ultimately thankless the CEO job really is (unless you consider huge severance to be a form of thanks, which is arguably a cynical, but useful perspective). By contrast I believe a great many CFOs imagine they could do better than their current boss because they believe they understand what business is really all about much more – ie: in their view MONEY. Unfortunately success isn’t that simple, a fact some companies are recognizing to their great advantage.  It even includes tissues, tea bags and time and attendance at time. It doesn’t hurt a CEO to understand those. Bookmark and share this post More »

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