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HRD to CEO: Top tips on making the move

Those who've moved from HR to non-HR executive roles share what they learned in the process

Top tips for preparing to move

  • Never be afraid of taking on more responsibility,” advises Shokat Lal, assistant chief executive at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. “I’ve done it throughout my career – that will add huge value and reap dividends. Never be afraid to put your hand up.”
  • Crucially, this means HRDs should get experience beyond HR, preferably managing a P&L. “Actually move into the P&L role you’re hiring for,” urges EY partner Dennis Layton. Consultant at Russell Reynolds Anna Penfold points out that this may sometimes need to be a sideways move. “Take a P&L role, whether a small country or business, to start with,” she says. “You might have to take a backwards or lateral move to do that. You can in some ways compensate for different sets of experience through getting a trustee or NED role but that’s less likely to position you for a CEO role than operational experience.”
  • Ask people what they think of you so you can identify your blind spots. “It’s important to have honest conversations,” says Lal. “So enlist people who don’t just encourage you but also tell you some home truths.”
  • Never be afraid to ask chief executives if you can shadow them,” adds Lal. “See what they do and how they work.”
  • Let people know you’re interested in becoming CEO, advises Mullwood Partnership’s founding director Jo Sellwood-Taylor. “You need to have a plan of how you want to get there,” she says. “And you need to make your intentions known. It sounds obvious but many don’t.”

Top tips for making the switch

  • Stepping up to CEO requires a key shift to become more conscious of how you’re coming across to others, says Welsh Rugby’s CEO Martyn Phillips. “It’s almost how you show up,” he says. “On a Monday you can feel people looking at you if you’ve beat the numbers what’s he like, and if you’ve missed them what’s he like? So I became very conscious of what I did and said, who I spoke to...”
  • Don’t let go of your HR expertise completely; what got you there will probably largely inform your success as CEO, says former MD at Paul UK Esther O’Halloran: “Stepping across doesn’t mean to say you let go of HR completely. You can have a varifocal lens where you have HR as the top bit and then the rest sitting under.”
  • Surround yourself with people good at the things you’re not. “Finance and HR are not always happy bedfellows, but you need a really skilled and competent FD to push back,” advises former interim CEO at Addaction Guy Pink.
  • Be aware that the role of CEO is increasingly one of chair, advises Sellwood-Taylor. “Businesses often now have just 30-day strategies so the CEO can’t possibly know everything and needs to be able to manage bigger, more strategic people. The CEO is turning into being more of a chair; getting information and ideas from everybody.”

Further reading

Your organisation needs you: HRD to CEO

HRD to... third sector CEO: Jon Sparkes

HRD to... private sector MD: Esther O'Halloran

HRD to... deputy CEO: Jo Land

HRD to... acting MD: Anne Gibson

HRD to... interim CEO: Guy Pink

HRD to... divisional MD: Warrick Beaver