Workplace Culture

The CHRO: A Stepping Stone to CEO?

By Jena Abernathy

Mar. 1, 2016

Human Resources leaders are increasingly providing operational and strategic input into their organizations.

While not everyone agrees that this is a positive trend — see “It’s Not HR’s Job to Be Strategic” from the Harvard Business Review — most HR professionals wholeheartedly welcome this change. With it, the view of HR as a support function is diminishing. Many HR executives have indeed moved from the back office to a seat at the table in both the C-suite and the boardroom.

Expanded roles have given HR professionals additional career options. It has made them more attractive candidates for jobs in other functional areas, across industries and in strategy-heavy leadership roles.The Argument logo

The chief human resources officer, for example, is not necessarily the terminal position it once was. It is not unheard of to find CEOs with CHRO roles on their résumés. I would not call this a major trend, but it is indeed a new day when HR executives can be thought of as CEO material.

A test case is General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra who, at one time, served as the company’s former vice president of global human resources. After a challenging start in early 2015 because of the company’s ongoing legal and regulatory issues related to faulty ignition switches, Barra has made headway as CEO, namely in her efforts to change the company’s culture.

With the recent elevation of Barra as both chairman and CEO, the board has stood solidly behind her as she has demonstrated not only the financial chops to make tough decisions like pulling out of select markets, but also the strategic prowess to bring forward new technology advances.

Can other CHROs move from perceived supporting roles to starring roles should they so desire? The key from a career standpoint is to gain a wealth of experience in other areas, especially profit-and-loss experience, thus positioning one’s HR expertise as a clear complement to other talents.

HR executives understand the central nervous systems of their organizations better than anyone. Today’s CHROs have very broad, strategic responsibilities for human capital and talent management that run the gamut from workforce readiness and operational excellence to succession planning to diversity and inclusion.

Responsibilities are bleeding over into areas like finance as well; organizations see the benefits of strong, collaborative relationships between HR and finance. Clearly HR executives are playing a pivotal role in their organizations’ market competitiveness and success.

To get a better sense of what organizations are asking of CHROs today, it’s helpful to look at position specifications used to recruit these executives. The following phrases are taken from such position profiles:


  • Develop strategic plans for human capital.
  • Ensure alignment of HR strategy with institutional strategy.
  •  Forecast future workforce requirements through an enhanced analytics capability.


  • Develop key performance indicators, or KPIs, and implement plans to improve organizational performance.
  • Ensure that effective financial indicators are used to achieve fiscal performance targets.
  • Institute operational changes ahead of competitors.

None of the phrases are new, but clients that I speak with are citing them more and more as essential prerequisites when they recruit CHROs.

In turn, HR leaders will need to continue to diversify their skills and competencies. The following are additional areas in which they can make a particular impact and serve notice that they are ready for greater leadership roles:

Bridging gaps among employees. Organizations, often belatedly, are diversifying spurred by targeted HR efforts. An essential CHRO responsibility today, for instance, is facilitating integration and collaboration between generations, most notably baby boomers and Generation Xers with millennials. In 2015, millennials became the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, according to Pew Research Center, and are changing the way organizations think and operate. CHROs are uniquely positioned to ensure intergenerational harmony and leverage an increasingly diverse workforce for increased productivity.

Promoting an analytical view of talent. Computer systems and technologies (especially those that are cloud-based or mobile) have given HR executives tools that they never had before to address staffing and talent issues proactively and strategically, and to share insights and vision with CEOs, boards, and other leaders. Most HR leaders have yet to realize the full benefits of analytical systems, but those who do will be in great demand.

In the recruiting I do for CHROs and other C-suite leaders, search committees and hiring managers without exception are looking for numbers people — executives who embrace the power of metrics and analytics and have a firm grasp of the technological support that is needed to use them.

Changing cultures:As with GM, some corporate and organizational cultures are in dire need of change. This is often the fundamental reason that a new CEO is brought in, and who better to lead cultural change than someone whose job has been to understand people and figure out how individuals, teams and departments can best function together as an organization? 

Not many CHROs want to become CEOs. But there are plenty with such an ambition to be on top, and it is nice to know that it is possible and that it will continue to happen. Given that the path to becoming a CEO is not as straight and narrow as it once may have been, it makes sense that it can wind its way through the HR department.

I coach and counsel many HR professionals to always think of themselves first as a great leader and executive with an expertise in human resources.

  • You are the executive charged with hard-wiring the business strategy throughout the organization.
  • You are the architect for building the team, the resources and the talent to enable a sustainable and successful organization for long-term success.

With a deep background in human resources, the CHRO has the capability and expertise to parlay department successes in the HR role into an expanded role and to lead an organization at the highest level. 

Jena Abernathy is managing partner/chair of board services and a senior partner with the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. She has past experience as an HR executive with McKesson General Medical, Fisher Scientific International and Premier Inc. She also is the author of “The Inequality Equalizer,” a book on career and leadership development due out in June 2016. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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