I was asked just today to participate in a survey about HR as Leadership. The BIG question the surveying company is trying to drive at here is found as question number nine “Why do so few HR professionals attain the position of CEO?”

This was sent to me through surveymonkey on a referral from a friend and you can find and participate in the survey here (http://bit.ly/9tUwrW) if you like. I didn’t like a lot of the multiple choice answers on the survey (the questions were good the answers were not) so I decided to write back to the person who invited my responses with some dialog on the questions. Take it with a grain of salt because these are mostly stream of consciousness responses. I welcome your thoughts.

1. How significant a role does HR play in driving shareholder value / earnings of a company?

Directly, not at all. But by being the arbiter of corporate culture and focusing part of their responsibility on a positive morale about the company throughout the business then HR does make sure that people keep working and are somewhat happy. This contributes to overall shareholder value.

2. What is the most important contribution of HR to a company’s overall mission?

HR needs to have no illusions about their role in the business. As hard as it may be to accept HR is a service organization that provides support to the business. This is most clear in that HR is a cost center and does not drive revenue. So what is the answer here? Support the business in the way that it needs support and make sure that the business is compliant with laws, rules, regulations, and policies. Help the business navigate through those areas to move forward. Do not set up roadBLOCKS rather provide roadSIGNS.

3. Which of the following is most important in helping to brand a company as an ‘employer of choice’?

Creating a strong employment brand is important, but also retaining top talent, driving down attrition by helping management understand that empowering employees with information makes it possible for them to take ownership of the company mission. If there is a top-down approach to management in this way then the organization becomes stronger and the employees feel like they made a good choice to work for the company. Ergo = "employer of choice"

4. What is the difference between a great HR professional and a mediocre one?

A great HR professional understand the meaning of the two words HUMAN and RESOURCE. That the HR role in the business is all about the people (not ALL ABOUT process, and metrics, and policies) and that the HR organization is a resource to the employee and the management. A mediocre HR professional places too much value on the corporate structure and looks to implement programs and ideas based on some overblown process that is either driven by metrics or cost and loses sight that "people are the true engine of a company, without them the company will fail".

5. What is the most common failing of HR when driving the recruitment / staffing process?

I believe that the biggest failure is not helping the manager drive to his desired results. Here, while HR is a service and support organization, is the one area where HR can stop being a lap-dog. In this way recruitment and staffing needs to help the manager understand their own urgency, their need to focus on making the hire and making sound decisions in a timely manner. Even if a manager drags his feet and it is on him that it took 3-5 months to hire someone, HR will still be blamed for the length of time it took to make the hire. So as long as HR will take the heat anyway, HR needs to own this process as well and drive the manager to be successful in their hiring efforts.

6. Does experience in HR prepare a person to succeed in other line functions?

I believe this to be absolutely true. As HR professionals we have to be more flexible and more adaptable than any other part of the business. Because the focus of our expertise is the most unpredictable part of the business, people, the landscape of what we do changes daily. This well prepares HR personnel to deal with the rest of the business in terms of the adversity they may face entering into new roles and the people they will have to work with. Often time the really great people skills are the one thing that can't be taught. Finance, Marketing, Administration, even engineering, research, and development can be taught.

7. Do you think a professional who has never worked in HR can succeed in the HR function?

The answer choices here were black and white. I chose NO, because not just anyone can waltz into HR. There are certain areas of the business that you never want to come into HR (Manufacturing as one example) because in general they do not have the mindset to understand the volatility of the HR world and how you can't turn HR functions into something with an on/off switch or where you can control volume of work according to some formula or metric.

8. How does HR most often disappoint / fail to meet expectations of the line managers

Many HR organizations fail to take into account what it takes to be an effective business partner and the time invested to gain credibility with the managers they work with. When people in HR are shuffled around in re-organizations and restructures to the HR business then the line managers wind up having to begin with a new resource from square one. That new resource exemplifies a break in continuity of service to the line manager; they need to take the time to acclimate to a new resource that has a new take on policies, guidelines, business needs, etc. This eliminates HR's credibility with management. Fail.

9. Why do so few HR professionals attain the position of CEO?

There are a combination of issues here. Great HR professionals get their hands dirty in the day to day work of HR. this may make them to macro to be able to sit comfortably as the CEO. Additionally, they may come to understand the business very well, but since it is not their role to DRIVE the business why would anyone assume they'd be effective when it comes to doing that? Having said that, a CEO role that is all about managing a team and company toward success should be something that a great HR professional can do well. Driving people to make great decisions and see the big picture. Again though, when it comes to making those big decisions in a vacuum as CEO's sometimes (oftentimes) need to do - not something the rest of the business is going to be comfortable with.

10. Does the average CEO recognize the value of the HR department?

No, the average CEO does not, but the exceptional CEO does. Jack Welch of GE often talks about the true value of HR and what they bring to the table and how important and undervalued it is by many of his peers. He has been quoted as saying, "If you are the top HR professional in a company and don't report directly to the CEO then get out." He means that the CEO has to have that regular visibility and view into his company from HR's perspective. Without that he may make great money and business decisions for the company, but if those decisions feed back negatively on his workers then he knows that leads towards failure.

Final note: While I think I state clearly above that we need to have no illusions about what we do and the scope of our contribution let me be clear that I believe that any company will eventually fail without that contribution.

Views: 817

Comment by Saleem Qureshi on March 12, 2010 at 7:08am
@Randy I think your article is well thought out...A CEO is a corporate title for the human face of a business. Occupying the seat of CEO of any corporation is a challenging and complex practice. CEO must recognize the value of HR, because if a CEO does not inculcate the culture of hiring the right people at the right time cannot drive an organization in a right direction.
Comment by Charles Van Heerden on March 15, 2010 at 7:34pm
Randy, you have covered a lot of ground very well and comprehensively and also highlighted that qualitative comments beat quantitative any day of the week! A little bit similar to the way HR should operate focusing on people and culture and not compliance and policies.

INSEAD has just released their best CEOs in the world survey and having had the privilege of working with one of them (Graham Mackay at Sabmiller), there is a world of difference between the best performing CEOs and average CEOs. Graham is incredibly strategic and intelligent yet would be humble in his discussions with executives, and he certainly valued the role of HR in the business! As a matter of interest, the HR Director (Tony van Kralingen) was previously the MD for their South African business.

Having worked for more than 10 companies in the last thirty years including about the same number of CEO transitions, it was encouraging to see their confirmation that insiders tend to do better. A view that is also espoused by Harvard Business School and other business researchers.

Question 9 seems to reinforce the perception of HR as a secondary discipline, whereas there are many good examples of HR people that have moved into CEO roles. In all of the cases I am aware of, they have moved laterally into other executive roles, before being appointed into the CEO role. In my view, it would be very difficult and unlikely to be promoted without having had P&L responsibility for a division or part of the business.

The real question therefor should be how many HR executives have had operational line management responsibilities?


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