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HRDs want to be CEO, HR magazine research finds

Many HR professionals are held back by board perceptions of HR and lack of non-HR experience

Two-thirds of HR directors would like to one day become CEO, deputy or interim CEO, MD or similar, according to exclusive reader research conducted by HR magazine.

Our ‘Why aren’t you CEO yet?’ survey set out to discover why, despite many of the priority issues boards are grappling with today (exec pay, diversity, corporate governance...) being HR issues, HR professionals still rarely progress to become CEO.

The most recent estimates by Mullwood Partnership put the number of HRDs moving to CEO roles at about 5%, compared to half coming from the three key backgrounds of finance, operations and marketing.

HR magazine’s survey found that this is perhaps not down to lack of appetite for the top job among HRDs. Of the HR professionals completing the survey, 65% said they would one day like to become CEO or similar. This compared with 72% of non-HR professional respondents.

The top reasons cited by those HR professionals who said they wouldn’t want the CEO job included: feeling that they just generally wouldn’t enjoy the role (46%), thinking they wouldn’t enjoy the pressure and accountability of the role (41%), not feeling confident on the finance side of things (41%), lack of experience outside the HR function (39%), and generally not feeling confident enough (38%).

Also cited was wanting to remain the person who holds the board to account and represents the employee at board level (33%), and not relishing the prospect of the long hours required (23%).

Among those HR professionals who said they would be open to progressing to CEO, factors cited as holding them back currently included: perceptions of the HR function (47%), lack of experience outside of the HR function (46%), not having the right opportunity yet (43%), not feeling confident on the finance side of things (39%), and just not feeling generally confident enough yet (34%).

Among non-HR professional respondents the main reasons cited for not wanting the top job were feeling that they generally wouldn’t enjoy the role (43%), thinking they wouldn’t enjoy the pressure and accountability of the role (29%), and not feeling confident on the finance side of things (29%).

HR magazine’s survey also asked those who had progressed to CEO the key factors they’d attribute their success to. Top factors cited by those who’d moved from an HR background to CEO included: ability to understand team dynamics and build a strong leadership team (83%), intellectual curiosity outside of HR (78%), drive to lead others and hold leadership roles (74%), cross-functional experience (70%), and commercial acumen (65%).

The survey also gave respondents the chance to offer anecdotal insight into the debate of HR professionals moving to non-HR senior leadership positions. Many concurred with the survey’s findings that lack of financial and operational experience had held them back. “I am responsible for a number of other areas including estates and IT but was advised that I would not be able to be considered for COO due to not being responsible for finance,” commented one.

Many suggested this was a perceptions issue rather than one of lacking a required skillset. “I think it's others' perception of the financial skills of an HR director,” one respondent stated. “It seems that it's perfectly OK for a finance director to assume responsibility for people but not the other way around.”

Another commented: “Not coming through an operational route has hampered me, as has CEO attitude towards HR and OD. My function was seen as the ones to take the blame and seen as blockers to her ambitions.”

However, there were encouraging signs that respondents thought now might be the time for HRDs to step up and prove the need for an HR skillset at CEO level.

“The speed of change will require different leadership qualities, and more inspirational change leadership that could open the door for more HR people to progress to broader leadership positions,” commented one respondent.

Another said: “I believe more HRDs should progress to CEO given the need for strong people-focused leadership and this being a skill too often missed at a senior level.”

To gain more insight into this debate check back online to read HR magazine’s March cover piece on the issue, to be published on www.hrmagazine.co.uk soon