So You Want to Be the Next CHRO?

At ChapmanCG we are often asked to find ‘a future Chief HR Officer’ as a key aspect of our usual search activities. As a result we are continually seeking to identify elite HR talent, around the world, who aspire to one day occupy the top HR seat of a leading multinational.

In this article, Stefanie Cross-Wilson, International President, and {nolink}Matthew Chapman{/nolink}, CEO of ChapmanCG offer some tips which we have found helpful to aspiring CHROs who believe they have what it takes to reach the very top of the HR profession.

1) Get International Experience

Gone are the days where it’s common for top HR leaders to start and end their career in one location. Even shifting within one country or region is not enough these days. Stretch yourself to gain multi-region and multi-country experience. There is no substitute for ‘being on the ground’ through assignments in different regions. There is a tangible experiential difference between getting ‘under the skin’ of a new country or region versus fly in/fly out visits. There is also a big credibility difference when it comes to perceptions of your global expertise. With an international assignment, the different perspective you take back to headquarters will stand you out from your peers and is a commonly sought after ingredient in CHRO appointments.

International assignments are also a great way to gain exposure to other high potential business leaders who, like you, may end up rising to the top, and building these networks early will be invaluable. You will also notice that elite business and HR leadership tends to be a lot more accessible ‘out in the field’ than at home in a global headquarters. An HR leader who has spent time in a mix of emerging and mature markets is especially sought after. All major markets are interesting in their own ways and would be valid as destinations. For the more adventurous, we see {nolink}India{/nolink}and anywhere in {nolink}Africa{/nolink} as two of the most exciting developing destinations in the coming years.

2) Diversify Your Resume

Agility is an important pre-requisite of a CHRO, and one of the best ways to demonstrate both agility and breadth of expertise is via a diverse resume. Here are a few points on this:

Cross Functional HR Experience Gets Noticed

Having specialist experience in different areas of HR is ideal. In our searches for top companies, regardless of the level or nature of the search, we are increasingly being asked for a combination of {nolink}HR Generalist{/nolink} and specialist experience. For CHRO appointments we are seeing a history of specialist experience in {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink} Organisation Development or Rewards as being particularly attractive. More recently we are noticing that large scale global HR Services/Operations is an addition to this list. We also expect that today’s ‘new breed’ of {nolink}Talent Acquisition{/nolink} leader — those with international experience and depth in social {nolink}media{/nolink} — will be viewed as potential CHRO successors if they can also gain the necessary {nolink}HR Generalist{/nolink}/Partner experience.

Work Across Different Industries

It is relatively easy to become an industry specialist and many CHROs have enjoyed exceptional single industry careers. However, these days, a diverse industry background more often than not wins out. For our senior level searches, both CEOs and CHROs tend to agree the ‘ideal’ resume would have a combination of relevant/same industry experience; plus expertise from outside of their industry, so that new experiences and alternative points of view can be contributed.

Overall the trend is definitely towards breadth of experience. We have recently worked on several senior, global searches where the requirement was specifically for ‘someone from outside of the industry’. Especially for companies which are market leaders, there is often a view that bringing in an HR leader who has only worked with competitors will mean that nothing new or special is being brought to the table.

If you are looking to pick up a new industry, two important ‘hot’ areas are regulated industry experience (especially FDA regulated for the {nolink}United States{/nolink}); and {nolink}manufacturing{/nolink}/operations industry experience, especially where Unions/Works Councils feature heavily.

Think Breadth of Employee Population

Arguably even more important than breadth of industry is a resume which demonstrates experience across very different employee groups. For example, many of our top senior searches require ‘a blue collar/white collar mix’. Another search recently needed a blend of both Operations and Commercial expertise, with R&D experience also being preferred. A demonstrated ability to work with ‘quirky’ employees (scientists, engineers, creative directors and Partners at consultancies or law firms are good examples) will also set you apart. And of course being able to span the globe and work across cultures is key for the aspiring CHRO; as is a resume which shows you can relate well to employees ‘from the shop floor to the Boardroom’.

Early Career Alert: Company and Business Size

We find that company size — and the size of business that an HR leader is responsible for – is something that is not thought about often enough or soon enough in career planning; and we have seen HR leaders ‘get stuck’ later in life having pigeonholed themselves in this regard. ‘Scale’ is important for HR leaders to have, and anyone who wants to be a large/public company CHRO needs to demonstrate the ability to lead effectively across large numbers of employees, regardless of the industry. On the flip side, there can be a view among senior hiring decision makers that people who have only worked in large corporate environments ‘would be lost without the structure’; ‘would not get his/her hands dirty’; or ‘wouldn’t cope in a more entrepreneurial and fast moving environment’.

We have also seen many examples of aspiring CHROs who get themselves to a number two or three position in a large blue chip multinational corporation (US$50bn plus), only to jump out too soon to a smaller environment (under $5bn) in the top job. In such a scenario, the company and the CHRO will have to perform extraordinarily well for that CHRO to be able to jump back into a larger environment in his/her subsequent role. Small companies/startups are not easy environments to do well in, and they can be very high risk as they are often heavily reliant on the CEO and one or two others. In a small company situation, if you are not part of a major success story, you could find it very hard to re-enter a large corporation at a similar level.

We suggest that company and business unit size is important to think about early in a career because aspiring CHROs ideally need a mix of large and medium/smaller size organization experience. Even at the Sr. HR Director/VP HR levels, for example, having both very large and medium/small business size experience is a real plus. We encourage HR leaders to think about getting this mix of experience early career, because once you are at or near the very top, someone with only small or medium company size experience won’t be attractive to a large company; and for a large company person, a single failure in a smaller environment can put an end to public company CHRO ambitions.

Don’t Forget the Matrix

The ability to successfully navigate a large, complex matrix structure is another important factor which is often underestim
ated. This is not something that comes naturally to anyone who has not grown a career working in a matrix. For an aspiring large company CHRO, it’s generally a ‘must’ that you can do this and do this well. This is a particularly important message for anyone sitting outside of a corporate headquarters, since the best training for being effective in a matrix often comes from within a corporate HQ environment. While working within a matrix structure is not fun for most people; it’s experience that ‘serious’ future contenders for CHRO roles need to have. Our advice to high potential HR professionals early in their careers is that they should seek to understand and embrace the matrix, as this will be an important pre-requisite for bigger roles later on.

3) Business Acumen is Key

Business knowledge and commercial acumen are key traits of the best CHROs. As the HR profession continues to evolve, there is a growing expectation that HR is a ‘true partner’ to the business. This means understanding how the business works and knowing the levers that drive business growth and profitability. Being able to take these insights and then use them to drive HR strategy and actions is critically important these days. The best CHROs are exceptionally skilled at this.

HR professionals with deep business and commercial acumen are rare. We believe that strong evidence of this capability at a fairly early career stage is arguably the best predictor of the potential to be a top CHRO later on. The best HR leaders often seem to achieve this in different ways; and in looking at a resume we can often ‘pick out’ key future indicators of success. For example:

  • Some of the best CHROs and future CHROs we know have deep product knowledge. We find that an engineering, medical or science degree (especially to Masters level) can be indicative of an individual who can understand and relate to a complex, technical business ‘from the bottom up’. Many start their careers by mastering a technical area, before moving to HR later on.
  • The ability to read a P&L and generally be ‘data-driven’ is another key predictor of success. However it’s also important that individuals who can do this well also have the ‘soft skills’ necessary to be successful in HR. They also need to be able to ‘make the complex simple’ in using data to reach conclusions and make the right business case.

For aspiring HR leaders who do not have a particularly technical background to leverage, we can offer some tips:

  • Today, business leaders want solutions, not theory, from HR. We are finding this move away from ‘theoretical’ HR to be particularly true in the {nolink}Talent Management{/nolink}sphere, for example, where increasingly we are seeing CHROs preferring to hire an accomplished {nolink}HR Generalist{/nolink}, rather than a more theoretically-oriented TM professional. For {nolink}HR Generalists{/nolink} and specialists alike, in an interview situation, you need to be able to quickly articulate the two or three things you have done recently to personally drive business results. Business and senior HR leaders these days are far less interested in what you know about HR. What is more likely to get their attention is what you have done to drive business results using your HR skills — either by yourself or working through others.
  • For our key {nolink}HR Generalist{/nolink}/Partner searches recently, we are often asked for HR leaders with a strong grasp of the ‘hard’ side of HR, which includes Rewards/ {nolink}C&B{/nolink}; budget management; Union/ {nolink}Industrial{/nolink} Relations; and {nolink}HR Operations{/nolink}/{nolink}Shared Services{/nolink}. HR leaders who are accomplished in these areas are generally viewed as being likely to have a commercial edge. For someone lacking in this background, it could be worth focusing on gaining this experience as a deliberate career step.
  • Finally, it’s important to know the necessary HR regulations, but it’s also important not to approach HR from the perspective of the regulatory framework, as many do. Rather, the more enlightened HR professionals recognize that ultimately it’s all about the business outcome; not about the ‘rules’.

4) Be a Strong and Contemporary Leader

An aspiring CHRO needs to be perceived as both strong and contemporary in today’s rapidly evolving business and HR world. Below are a few points we find are particular important CHRO traits in today’s global business environment:

  • Transparency — Mean what you say; say what you mean. Don’t hide inconvenient truths, and don’t have ‘hidden agendas’.
  • Develop a reputation as a great mentor, especially to the people under you. The best leaders take a heavy level of interest in the development of their teams. Word tends to spread right to the top of the company about who is and is not invested in the development of others.
  • Be humble. A lack of humility can often be seen as insecurity, not strength.
  • Have an opinion and back yourself. You need to be a good listener, but also contribute actively in meetings and decision-making — on HR and non-HR topics.
  • Ask the question ‘do you see me at the top?’ Importantly, ask this question of your peers in the business, in addition to your trusted HR mentors. This can be a difficult question to ask, but the answers can be revealing and provide valuable input and lessons — even though the answers may not always be easy to hear.
  • Don’t be a ‘delegator’. Today the name of the game is no longer about sitting atop an HR empire handing out tasks. It’s about driving tangible business results. The best leaders are generally ‘in the weeds’ and ‘all about the detail’. At the same time, they have the knack of making the complex simple, and ‘not sweating the small stuff’.
  • Know your way around social {nolink}media{/nolink} and thoughtfully update your LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. In the past ‘senior’ people often didn’t see the need to do this. Today, for many businesses and business leaders, failure to do this means being ‘out of touch’.

5) Be Careful What You Ask For

Finally, we’d like to suggest it’s important to recognise that not everyone has what it takes to be a CHRO — or even a second in command. Furthermore there are some very talented people with the qualifications and capabilities to take this step, but choose not to. We’d like to highlight two important considerations.

Pedigree Counts

Many CEOs, CHROs and Executive {nolink}Talent Acquisition{/nolink} leaders (and their search firms) look for a particular ‘pedigree’ in an HR leader. It’s important to recognise this and to accept that sometimes, no matter how ‘talented’ you are; you won’t get that top job unless you have a particular industry or company background; or a certain set of academic qualifications. If you don’t have that special MBA; or if you don’t have that Fortune 500 company history, for example, it’s important to be realistic about the fact that there are certain roles for which you will not be considered. Often decision making can be driven from the top, by a CEO or CHRO with strong views on the kind of background an individual ‘must have’. If you are working with a reputable search firm, they will usually be quite transparent about what an ‘ideal’ candidate would look like, if asked. Many exceptionally talented HR leaders lack the right resume to make it all the way to the top, and this is simply a fact of life they need to accept — and not take personally.

For anyone turned down for not having the ‘right’ profile, the worst thing he or she c
an do is to be seen to have a ‘chip on their shoulder’ about this; or to let this become an emotional issue. This can create a downward spiral, and may affect his/her confidence and ability to perform well in future interview situations.

Family Comes First

The CHRO role is a taxing one and it requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. We’ve seen many HR friends reach this stage, then either opt out before taking the final step; or become disenchanted, having finally reached CHRO level after years of hard work aiming for this level. Those that remain successfully in the top role over a number of years tend to have a great deal of family support; and they manage their personal situation to enable the necessary focus and dedication for success in the role. More often than not, they also have exceptional intellectual horsepower and mental agility, which allows them to balance the stresses of a busy work agenda and a busy family agenda in a way that most people cannot.

The best, most elite CHROs we know often tell us that it’s possible to have a great HR career without actually reaching the top role; and often they say they were at their happiest in a less senior position. We have seen others experience doubt and regret once in the role, given the sacrifice involved. We therefore feel it’s important to stop and ‘sanity check’ a burning desire to be CHRO at various points during a career journey. It’s certainly not a step that everyone should take, even if offered the opportunity.

In conclusion, we see the CHRO role as being more high profile, complex and demanding than ever before, due to the pace of change and level of competitiveness in today’s business world — fueled by rapid advances in globalization and technology. It’s definitely an exciting time for a rising HR leader to be planning and working towards a CHRO career. One of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of our role here at ChapmanCG is the opportunity to partner with, and watch the career growth of tomorrow’s top HR professionals.


Keep up with the latest HR insights and updates.
Sign up

Recent Posts