HR as CEO
HR non-executive directors (NEDs) are rare, but rarer still are the people professionals who have made the switch to CEO. The case for more HR leaders taking the top spot, however, appears to be growing.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) has become a requirement rather than a nice-to-have, and world events, including the pandemic and diversity politics, have forced businesses to take a stance.
This means board priorities have changed, and HR’s knowledge on these topics are a huge advantage.
“There are now so many people matters at board level,” Brown says.
“When I get to new leaders and ask what are you worried about, they talk about the cost of living, recruitment and retention, productivity, doing more with less, maintaining corporate culture while going through major change, transformation.
"This is stuff that good HR leads know so much about.”
As a former deputy managing director and director, Shears has some CEO-related experience and is a firm believer that people issues make or break a business.
“I do think the CEO is possible, as long as people recognise their HR background is informing their role and it isn’t what they’re there for,” she says.
“The hardest lesson for an HR person [as a CEO] is looking another HR person in the eye and saying you’re not getting that money and that’s not the direction we’re taking.”
"I do think [becoming] CEO is possible, as long as people recognise their HR background is informing their role and it isn’t what they’re there for"
The HR to CEO route is more commonly found in councils and local authorities, according to Shears, where Cambridgeshire County Council’s Stephen Moir is a standout example.
When asked by HR magazine in January/February 2023’s ‘Lessons from the C-suite’ interview why more HR professionals don’t become CEO, Moir put it down to imposter syndrome.
Where confidence is concerned, Shears offers a helpful tonic: “Most leadership jobs require someone who is good with people – it’s the biggest strength you can have.”
An advocate for HR experimenting with their careers, Magecha similarly encourages HR leaders considering the switch to CEO to just go for it.
Variety will help any leaders looking for a change, she adds: “If I was to redo my entire career, one of the things I would look to do earlier is do something other than HR.
“I wish I had spent a couple of years at some point doing something else – operations strategy or finance.”
HR Most Influential 2022 thinker Aggie Mutuma, formerly group people director at Argent Food, became CEO of diversity and inclusion (D&I) and anti-racism consultancy Mahogany Inclusion Partners in 2021.
She says the step up to CEO has been all about pursuing her passion.
She says: “What has worked for me is finding the thing that I really love that I am skilled in, that the world needs and that can sustain my life, too.
“This is so important because the life of a CEO comes with many challenges.
"Your love for what you do, your knowledge that you are delivering something that the world needs will really spur you on during those tough times.”
HR as specialists
When passion or purpose drives a career move, specialism, either in-house or as a consultant, is another option to explore.
Mutuma’s motivation behind her departure from in-house HR was the desire to lean on her expertise and have a wider impact.
“I knew that with my deep expertise in strategy, leadership, HR and D&I, I could have a significant impact on workplace cultures across many organisations by working with leaders to demystify D&I, make it meaningful for their organisation and support them to develop practical and impactful strategies,” she says.
Working with such emotive topics can make work all-consuming, which Mutuma is mindful of.
“While I love the fact that I create spaces safe enough for people to be honest, it can be hard to hear such strong anti-inclusion views,” she says.
“To help clients and their teams understand issues such as racism, I often share my experiences – these hurt and sometimes I experience the feelings almost as if the horrible incidents had just occurred.
“Keeping my mind on why and recognising when I feel upset is really important.”
Coaching is another way HR leaders shift into more specialist consultancy work. If looking for wide-ranging impact though, Clements says it may not be the best option.
Reflecting on his own coaching experience, he says: “The role that I’ve got today [as a CPO] can impact on a number of people – thousands of people around the world if it’s done well – whereas coaching is effectively helping one person at a time.
“I know they in turn help others, but it can be quite lonely. It’s a very giving place.”
Magecha, who is also a trained coach, says proper qualifications are needed in coaching and consulting. She adds: “A lot of people believe that they can just be consultants. It’s a bit like everybody thinking they can be a coach.”
Finding the ‘why’
In her post-Just Eat job search, Magecha observed a paradox in the kind of pre-listing, high-growth businesses she was looking to join. Though many have realised the value a HR director or CPO can have, some business leaders still just aren’t ready to put their trust in HR.
“That’s where you really get into that frustration of a CPO role, because you’re coming in to help the CEO let go or the founders let go and a lot of them just weren’t ready because they were still holding on to ‘this is the business I’ve created’,” she says.
For businesses that are ready to let CPOs get involved with company strategy, she adds, it then becomes a question of is it worth it?
“CPOs are just going around in circles wondering: 'do I work for a FTSE business that lets me do all of this? I’ve got all the burnout that goes with it, I’ve got all the scars, I’ve done this journey two or three times, do I have the energy to do it again?’”
Due to her own frustrations with the job market and those she has seen in her network, Magecha foresees a fallout of HR roles in the next few years.
“I believe in the next two to three years there will be an exodus of people doing what I’ve just done,” she says. “Lots of people in my network are looking out for what comes next.
"They’re looking at COO-type roles, comms roles, or just anything – actually just saying: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’.”
With continued economic instability, Clements has seen the opposite in his network, and more consultants are looking to move back in-house.
“The consultants I talk to, they always either move in-house or leave it entirely, because they never actually get to see the world complete.”
In his network, he adds: “I’ve got a larger volume of people tapping me up privately and saying: ‘I’m out in the market, I want to do this thing differently, have you got any advice for me?’”
Whether falling in or out of HR to try something new, the consensus is that people professionals should understand their ‘why’.
Magecha says: “Job titles are varied. Do what you need to do and take the risks and play with your career.”
This article was first published in the May/June 2023 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.