The Path to the C-Suite

Data sophistication, change agility, and board relations are keys for any ambitious HR executive.

By Kimberly Shanahan

Today’s turbulent business environment demands that companies transform their operations, enter or exit new markets, and shift strategies globally—and generally turn on a dime. At the same time, HR departments are facing a rough talent landscape marked with retirement cliffs, talent craters, and managers moving up faster before they can be groomed.
Demand for exceptional HR officers who can handle this “new normal” is at an all-time high, driven by a confluence of factors: CEO turnover, board pressure, mergers and acquisitions, and retirements. Even as it appears that thousands of experienced HR executives are searching for a position, few are fully qualified. Have they run talent globally? Have they managed through a merger or turnaround? Have they had meaningful exposure to the board of directors?

Leveraging human capital into competitive advantage is a huge strategic undertaking—and it ultimately falls on the shoulders of the chief human resources officer (CHRO). Boards and CEOs are expecting that the CHRO bring commercial savvy, unbeatable business acumen, and a depth of understanding about what kind of talent drives success to every aspect of a company’s strategy. CEOs want a CHRO who can leverage data and analytics to make the business case for talent decisions. All this adds up to more pressure and more opportunities to fail.

In many cases, companies look for CHROs who have a background that blends both HR and line experience. To get this mix, some companies have rotated HR talent into other functions. Likewise, HR executives on the market who’ve taken assignments in multiple geographies, rotated through specialty and generalist functions, and led through significant change, are highly sought after.

Ambitious HR executives, then, should be building their career with this growing list of requirements in mind. They must
have courage, learning agility, intellectual horsepower, and exceptional leadership skills. A track record of taking risks is also desirable. Ultimately, CEOs and boards need to be convinced that a candidate for CHRO is battle-tested, clear-eyed, and ready to assume a mission-critical role.

Recent research we conducted at Korn/Ferry found that change agility—the ability to cope effectively with the discomfort of rapid change—is another defining capability for CHROs. As
HR professionals move up to manager and then to executive, change agility scores leap from average (49th percentile) to the 64th percentile. What does this mean? That top HR leaders must be comfortable with driving change.

While many companies have strong, viable successors in line to lead HR, we see many scoping out talent in the external market, hoping to find something better. In the Fortune 500, it has become more common to see companies put veteran non-HR executives into a CHRO role, or recruit away another company’s number two HR leader.

These companies are hoping to stay ahead of the rapid evolution of the CHRO role, which seems to be expanding
in scope and expectation with each passing year. They hope
to find the data-smart, board-savvy, brave and agile leader who can steer the organization through the ever-shifting talent maze. For up-and-coming HR leaders, a career path
with challenging twists and change-leading turns that build leadership muscles might be just the training course they need.

Building Better HR Leaders

HR leaders must continually strengthen their leadership skills, and look for opportunities to stretch themselves if they are to grow into CHRO material. Some approaches to consider:

Become a student of the business. Develop a strong understanding of the business early by meeting with strategic partners, top customers, and other important stakeholders.

Hunt for parallels to generate new ideas. Connecting dots and “cross-pollinating” insights from your network can lead to new ideas and approaches. It also helps to consider how successful methods from other realms might apply to your own sphere.

Practice leading change. Find task forces and projects that provide a platform to drive change, the more broadly across the organization the better. Master the fine art of explaining how the change will help coworkers, emphasizing what is still in a person’s control, and minimizing resistance.

Be an “incrementalist.” Growth and change require risk, sacrifices, and inevitable errors; try many quick and inexpensive experiments to increase the chances of success and encourage others to do the same.

Kimberly Shanahan is senior client partner and managing director of the human resources practice at Korn/Ferry International.

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, HRO Today Global, Professional Contribution

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