Why isn't the Head of HR becoming our new CEO?

When an organisation is preparing to select its next CEO it is very likely that candidates, both internal and external, will have a background in almost any profession except HR. We admit we have no hard evidence to support this assertion but over our many combined years in business we have observed that not only do very few HR people end up running organisations, but that HR leaders are rarely even considered as a serious candidates.

Why is this?

HR has an unrivalled view across the organisation and regularly deals with serious and complex issues that have an impact at all levels.  Decisions about people are fundamental to the success and wellbeing of an organisation but, despite these qualities, it is usually the accountant, lawyer, salesman, or operations person who lands the top job.

Unlike these traditional business functions the HR profession is a relatively modern one, and has struggled for some time to be clear about its role. Starting as essentially an administrative function, it has found it difficult to shake off that reputation as the demands of modern business practice changed.  HR found its place in many organisations by becoming efficient administrators and guardians of policy and standing aside from the commercial hurly burly of business life - establishing credibility through a form of commercial neutrality.

So what is it about these other functions that make them more suitable for running a business that HR seems to lack?  Some researchers have identified the characteristics of the successful CEO (D.A. Benton in ‘How to Think Like a CEO’ suggests there are 22) but we suggest that there might be three traits that HR professionals can focus on improving:

1. Be confident

There is a sense that HR practitioners in an organisation are there on sufferance, not quite ‘a necessary evil’ but certainly something that needs to be tolerated.  And HR people themselves can be complicit in sustaining this poor perception by not being able to articulate what it is they do, the impact they can have and the real value they bring to the organisation.

Don’t be apologetic about HR – many new entrants to the profession see HR as an agent of change and actively pursue an agenda in which they are initiating change rather than simply coping with it.

And stop whining about being under-represented at board level.  Trust us, if your senior colleagues think you can bring value to the table you’ll be asked to join at the earliest opportunity.

2. Be commercial

Whether we like it or not HR is not seen as a commercial function – it earns no revenue and makes no direct contribution to the bottom line. How many times have we heard HR professionals talking about “the business” as if the aims and objectives of the organisation were something separate to the things they were involved with.  To run a business you need to understand the business model, what you do or make and how you sell it, and how to organise the company to deliver those objectives.

Spend some time understanding balance sheets, P&Ls, get to grips with the terminology of business and ask questions of those who can help you.  Understand what it is your business does, how it makes its money, where the pressure points are for price, and get a few simple ratios under your belt.  Talk like a businessman and people will take you much more seriously.

3. Be strategic

Most people don’t have jobs, in HR or anywhere else, where they feel they can have a real impact on the strategic direction of the company.  But "being strategic" isn’t just about making an impact at board level.  It is also about understanding how what you say and do impacts the ability of others to do their jobs, and the overall impact on the success of the business.

If, as an HRBP, a manager comes to you looking for help with a problem he probably doesn’t want you to quote the rule book to him; he can look that up on-line.  He wants you to help him find a solution to his problem that doesn’t break the rules but gets him what he wants.

Focussing on these three areas, should help HR to recognise that it is a constituent part of the business and must act together with colleagues from other functions to the benefit of the organisation as a whole. After all, this is a fundamental aspect of what good CEOs do……