Why Chief Human Resource Officers May Just Be the Next Great CEOs

CoachHub · 25 May 2022 · 5 min read

Take a moment and think about the C-suite and their respective areas of expertise. Finance understands the P&L, the balance sheet and the financial levers available to the business. Sales and marketing execs understand customers and the competitive landscape. Legal knows its way around business contracts and government regulations. The chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, chief legal officer and other denizens of the C-suite are undeniably experts at what they do, and they’ve likely been laser-focused on their professional discipline their entire career. Few, if any, have spent significant time in the trenches outside their area of expertise—except the chief human resources officer (CHRO).

A strategic business partner

As companies mature, HR shifts from “the hiring and benefits department” or “the training team” into a consultative role as a strategic partner to the business. As such, HR professionals work hand-in-hand with business leaders to build the teams they need to achieve their goals. By the time they make it to the top of their profession, the chief human resource officer has guided the hiring, development and growth strategies for every department—and for the C-suite itself. They’ve led corporate-wide projects, from change management initiatives to organizational overhauls. They’ve dealt with global, regional and local employment issues. They’ve coached new hires, new managers and new executives. They’ve proven themselves in adverse situations. Few have a deeper understanding of what makes the company tick.

That depth and breadth of knowledge makes the chief human resource officer a serious contender for CEO. They not only understand how the business functions holistically and within each discipline, CHROs know how to identify, assess and motivate talent, build high-functioning teams, and keep the company out front today while preparing it for the future. The path to the CEO may traditionally have gone through the chief operating officer’s (COO) office (and the path to COO through sales or operations), but there’s an excellent argument to be made for the next leader to ascend through the HR ranks. If someone is considering how to become a chief executive, HR may be a terrific place to start.

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How CEO and Chief Human Resource Officer competencies align

The CHRO-to-CEO pipeline isn’t all that common—yet. But let’s take a look at what sets successful CEOs apart. The CEO Genome Project, a 10-year study of the attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs, analyzed the career history, business results and behavioral patterns of more than 17,000 C-suite executives, including 2,000 CEOs. The project found that successful CEOs—those who meet or exceed the expectations of their company’s board members and investors:

  1. Decide with speed and conviction: They don’t let ambiguity or analysis paralysis derail them, but they also understand when a decision can be deferred
  2. Engage for impact: They seek to understand motivations, instill confidence and rally stakeholders to drive results
  3. Adapt proactively: Their focus on long-term objectives enables them to adjust quickly to changing situations
  4. Deliver reliably: 94% of the exceptional CEOs consistently followed through on their commitments

Chief human resource officers share these traits in equal measure with their C-suite peers. CHROs are future-oriented, action-inclined and comfortable with complexity. They know how to lead. In essence, the CHRO is the CEO of the company’s talent organization, which in large enterprises is responsible for tens of thousands of employees contributing billions to the bottom line. Chief human resource officers are businesspeople who share the CEO’s understanding of the company and its goals, and who drive its people-related systems accordingly.

Coaching as a key lever for success in organizational transformation

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Chief Human Resource Officers embrace coaching to deliver business results

Chief human resource officers understand, perhaps better than any of their C-suite peers, that a corporation isn’t a “thing”—it’s the collective output of people contributing their skills and experience toward a common goal. The CHRO’s remit is to create impact and return on the money invested in the company’s talent systems. One such system is training and development, an important aspect of which is coaching. Let’s look at coaching as a microcosm of the ways in which the head of HR is well-prepared to lead a company forward as the CEO.

CHROs know that the business impact of a strong coaching culture can be profound, and they work diligently to build it into the fabric of their organization. The International Coach Federation (ICF) found that more than 70% of employees who received coaching benefitted from improved work performance, stronger relationships and more effective communication skills, and 86% of companies recouped their investment in coaching.

Chief Human Resource Officers have an undeniable impact on organizational performance

Consider the impact coaching can have on a company’s bottom line. Few C-suite executives can claim such a clear, positive influence on so many key performance metrics, and CHRO salary should reflect that. The ICF reported that companies with a strong coaching culture fared better than their competitors without one in terms of:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Talent attraction
  • Profitability
  • Shareholder value
  • Productivity
  • Large-scale strategic change

The same was found for markers of high-performance organizations, including:

  • Bench strength
  • Internal mobility
  • Retaining high performers

Coaching Chief Human Resource Officers to move into CEO roles

Like any other leader, chief human resource officers have areas in which they excel and competencies they need to develop further to take on the penultimate corporate leadership role. That’s where executive coaching comes in.

Executives who lean toward intellectual leadership encourage people to reconsider their assumptions, see things from different perspectives and look at issues in new ways. With the help of an executive coach, CHROs can learn to tap into their social and participative leadership comfort zones—they tend to be highly skilled at engaging others—to draw new ideas or alternative solutions out of people who otherwise might not consider them. They can become more adept at knowing when to take action vs. when to explore the nuance and complexity of a problem before doing so. And perhaps most importantly, they can learn to trust their ability to lead at the highest level.

More than 40% of Fortune 500 companies use executive coaching services, and for good reason. Executive coaches can be invaluable in assessing strengths and weaknesses and helping the head of HR—or anyone else, for that matter—use the former effectively while managing, mitigating or “learning past” the latter. They are a knowledgeable yet entirely confidential sounding board for discussion and exploration of the most challenging, vexing or troubling issues, whether personal or professional. And because they have experience guiding high achievers through high pressure situations, they are trusted advisors CHROs can rely on to help them hone the competencies that will make them successful CEOs.

So, is HR the new path to CEO?

While HR hasn’t been the traditional path to the corner office, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. There are no set-in-stone rules governing how to become a chief executive, and human capital systems are just as critical to an organization’s success as technology, financial and operating systems.  Chief human resource officers have the skills, competencies and battle-tested experience to lead organizations at the highest level.

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