Why don’t more CEOs come out of HR?

I’ve frequently wondered why some professions or backgrounds are more strongly represented at Chief Executive level than others.  Some of it may simply be that some professions offer a better grounding for that job.  However it does seem to me that there may be other factors at work, I suspect that some professions are held back by a lack of feasible routes to the top, and there are issues of both skill and will to move to the top job.

We did some work on this recently in the context of HR professionals.  There are many similarities between what a good HRD has to do and what a good CEO does.  They both need to shape the organisation to achieve strategic aims, manage significant resources, make change happen through people, and face up to tough conversations.  Whilst there are some aspects of a CEO where there’s a less obvious fit with HR, there are some pretty big gaps when you consider other professions such as Finance, Law, IT, Strategic Marketing and so on, yet there seems to be (much) more movement there.

I had the chance to pick the brains of four very experienced HRDs over dinner, and add this to the results of a survey we did.  The survey found that 3% of CEOs had an HR background, and that 20% of HRDs aspired to the CEO position.

How should we interpret the 20% figure?  Clearly for the 80% there is an issue of will.  They don’t want it.  Is this because they don’t think it’s feasible to achieve it?  In other cases it will be because people are content.  There’s no doubt that some HR folk see their role almost as a vocation, or that the people dimension is by far and away the most interesting aspect in any organisation.  In other cases people look upon the demands and uncertain prospects of a CEO role with horror.

However for the 20% who do want to progress, it appears that a small minority are making it.  Why is that?

The discussion suggested a number of factors but perhaps the most significant was the sense of an HR professional silo, which actively discouraged people moving out of HR, and a professional development ethos which explicitly regards an HRD as the pinnacle of achievement.

This ties in to a generally poor perception of HR amongst others within the organisation.  It is said that you can tell how well regarded a profession is by the stridency of its demands to have a seat at the top table as of right, rather than simply getting there because it’s obviously appropriate.  Such demands are pretty strident in HR circles right now.

I’m not sure that it’s expected that HR people will want opportunities to move into more front-line or organisational leadership roles, and such opportunities seem rarely to be created.

There’s also the self-fulfilling point that an absence of high profile and successful role models works against the creation of more high profile and successful role models.

I’ve written a longer article about all this which will (allegedly) be published shortly – I’ll post a link if/when that happens.

But I’m going to be interested to extend the analysis to other professions, too.  And I’d be interested in views – expressed as comments here or at http://www.veredusdebate.co.uk

3 Comments Add yours

  1. mike barnato says:

    Interesting..I think there are several factors at play. One of them is that is that it is difficult to be credible at the strtagic top table if you don’t deliver operationally. I worked with one of the largest HR groups in the UK. They were perceived by their internal clients as being ineffective in terms of recruitment and HR policies. And they were! The HR Director did not become credible as a CEO until we improved processes, became more customer focused and simplified policies…


  2. John Bastow says:

    Jonathan, the following factors are at play in my experience (with some generic / opinionated statements!): –

    . HR is regarded as a support rather than a (business) leadership function
    . HR professionals feel nervous & lacking in confidence about not being part of the core business
    . HR is seen as a career in itself, rather than a stepping stone to a more general management role
    . I’m interested in how you define a HR person. If they have been moved into such a role as part of their wider management development then I suspect the flow-rates to CEO will be higher.



  3. jonathanflowers says:

    An article by me on this topic was published in HR Director in December 2009.


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