CEOs unlikely to come from HR profession: could there be a gender issue here?

14 Nov 2011

Helen Giles

One obvious correlation, it seems to me, is that most HR professionals are women and most CEOs are men. There must be a relationship here somewhere to that current high profile debate about why there are not more women on boards.

One thing I've noticed time and time again is the vicious circle that prevents HR professionals being more strategic within their organisations. HR has not traditionally been seen as a strategic function which adds measurable value, so CEOs are reluctant to invest in it properly.

It's too much of an article of faith to spend a decent amount of money on it since they've never seen with their own eyes the return on investment that comes from a properly resourced team, with truly competent individuals, operating at the right levels.

The HR staff they employ are then often operating at too low a level with too few staff in their departments to handle even the basics of the job well.

I have seen many a bright and able HR 'head' or 'manager', reporting to the top tier through a finance director, with a tiny team of juniors to support him or her (most often a her). They desperately want to get out there, understand the business and focus on long-term strategic planning, but are bogged down handling the complex and time-consuming work of dealing with regulation and employee relations.

They are seen as pretty useful and reasonably competent within the business for fire-fighting reactive purposes. But, their potential to do the more strategic work of influencing the business to operate in a way that minimises the potential for such problems to arise in the first place remains unseen. This means the top decision-makers lack the evidence to invest more to have the right people in the right places within the function to make it a leading contributor to the success of the business.

In short, I believe that it is this vicious circle that serves as the main barrier to progression of HR people to the top, rather than anything intrinsic about the HR function or the mindset or capabilities of the people who go into it. Then again, as the article pointed out, there are a number of HRDs who have broken through this vicious cycle to become high impact contributors to successful businesses and public bodies but haven't become CEOs because they don't want to, being more inclined to venture into setting up successful HR businesses of their own.

Helen Giles is HR director at Broadway Housing


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