Why VPs of HR Don’t Become CEOs

By Dr. Sullivan

Jan. 8, 2007

Have you noticed that in announcements about people being promoted to the CEO level, their previous job title is almost always CFO, CIO or general manager of a business unit? Rarely, if ever, were they VPs of HR.

    I have monitored the topic for years and can attest that it’s incredibly rare to find a Fortune 500 VP of HR who has been promoted to CEO within his or her organization. It’s a striking indication that HR still has a long way to go. The dearth of direct promotions is especially troubling in that most outbound Fortune 500 CEOs have at one time or another declared publicly that “people are our most important asset.”

    Having had the opportunity to advise literally hundreds of VPs of HR around the world over the course of my career, I have concluded that there are a number of reasons why HR VPs are rarely tapped to lead organizations. Here’s my top 10 (unlike David Letterman’s list, I haven’t ranked mine):

  • Failing to state CEO as a career goal. Many VPs of HR publicly declare that serving in that job is the pinnacle of their career dreams. They see themselves as a behind-the-scenes player. And they are therefore often treated as such.

  • Failing to build a well-recognized internal HR brand. Image is as important within an organization as it is outside one. Unfortunately, most VPs fail to develop an internal brand as the solver of strategic business problems.

  • Failing to prove impact. HR people are notorious for calling themselves business partners, but routinely fail to act like business professionals by not using the language of business: dollars and cents. By not assessing the business impact of HR actions in dollars, HR professionals demonstrate that they don’t understand the big picture.

  • Failing to anticipate and forecast. CEOs seldom dwell on history, focusing instead on the future. In stark contrast, HR professionals rarely, if ever, forecast. They seldom issue warnings or announce plans to quell upcoming people/business problems.

  • Failing to build a competitive advantage. CEOs are often focused on being No. 1 in everything they do. HR, by contrast, tends to manage to the average, focusing on internal comparisons and rarely on external competitors. Only one in a thousand HR functions routinely complete a function-by-function competitive analysis in order to assess and build their competitive advantage.

  • Dwelling on equal treatment instead of differentiating and focusing on performance. Most VPs of HR seem to have an obsession with equity. Unfortunately, increasing workforce productivity requires that HR continually shift its best people and resources from low-impact/low-return areas to high-impact/high-return programs and focus on top performers.

  • Failing to take the lead with technology. In a world of rapid change, nothing sends a clearer message that you are on the leading edge than early adoption of effective technology. Faster, more accurate decisions can only occur when VPs move to make HR paperless and to provide every manager with desktop access to decision tools and people information.

  • Failing to think and act globally. The world of business is flattening, but most VPs of HR continue to be “location-centric.” Frequently, HR fails to develop a global strategy where “one size fits one.” They also fail to develop programs to share best practices, which can enable rapid learning and solution sharing around the world.

  • Failing to demonstrate responsiveness and effectiveness within HR. Although it is essential in order to build credibility, HR often fails to deliver excellent, consistent service in the eyes of management customers, which is a prerequisite before anyone will truly pay attention to HR.

  • Failing to build a performance culture. CEOs are expected to be winners year in and year out. VPs of HR should be no different. They are expected to build a performance culture that develops a sense of urgency about performance within every manager and employee. When the press, colleagues, competitors and top management begin describing your culture as “performance-focused,” then the VP of HR has succeeded in his or her mission.

    Whether you are a midlevel HR professional or a current VP of HR, the time is now for you to begin acting like a future CEO. The errors you need to avoid are clear. And even if you don’t make it all the way to CEO, you might end up being the most effective and influential HR professional in your industry.

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