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So, You Want to be a Chief Human Resources Officer?

Ambitious HR professionals are likely to entertain the idea of one day leading the HR team as the CHRO or Chief People Officer.

It’s a natural aspiration to ponder, and a common topic of conversation in the world of HR.

And if you’re serious about reaching such a career goal, you’ve probably wondered if you have what takes, how you can really know what the job is about, and what the CEO would expect from you.

There’s plenty of information publicly available on this topic, helping you answer these questions for yourself.   

Author, business professor and i4cp thought leader John Boudreau suggested in a Harvard Business Review article that more leaders should aspire to the CHRO job because it can be the most impactful leadership role in the organization.  

A 2018 Forbes article on this subject suggests that the qualities of a great CHRO include a willingness to take risks, champion change, and innovate by partnering with the business.  

Other experts add to this list of qualifications by suggesting that the HR leader needs to focus on financial literacy, compliance and risk, talent acquisition, management training, and total rewards.  

Based on 30-plus years in business, my exposure to real-life examples of what it takes to be an effective HR leader, and my own personal experience in the CHRO role, let me suggest two important points.

  1. It’s not what you think it is
    The conventional approach to creating a career path to CHRO is to develop a portfolio of expertise in the critical sub-disciplines within HR. The typical trajectory was to occupy roles in recruiting, employee relations, compensation, and training as a specialist, manager or director.

    While this is not bad advice, it also sends an unintentional message that the CHRO role is largely about high-level management of functional activity. Historically, the CHRO was expected to serve other leaders, reduce employment and safety risk, gradually improve efficiency, and keep costs down. In today’s business environment, nothing could be further from the truth.

  2. It’s much harder than you think it will be
    There is plenty of data to suggest that most C-level executives don’t feel qualified for the job, and at least 50% say the actual job is very different than their expectations. According to data and insights recently collected by i4cp in multiple conversations with CEOs, it is clear these top leaders expect a modern CHRO to focus on talent, developing leaders, aligning workplace culture with business strategy, and driving business transformation.

    And to help you remember one unfortunate reality, HR still has a reputation problem at many organizations. As the CHRO, you are challenged to influence thinking and behavior change with leaders and employees who don’t recognize your voice, acknowledge your expertise, or believe your message.

Here is how to know if you have what it takes. The successful CHRO of the future will be:

  • A business person first. You will demonstrate off-the-charts levels of emotional intelligence, because this is not a role for the faint-of-heart. You will be challenged beyond belief, criticized beyond imagination, and sabotaged behind your back.
    And because you are driven to not just survive—but to thrive, you will dig deep into business results and become a champion for customers, employees and all stakeholders. You won’t buy into the myth that HR should be the last to get funded.
  • A communicator who influences with informed insights. You will communicate often, with transparency, humility, and accessibility. Not simply satisfied to be a partner to your executive peers, you will push them hard to be even better leaders and creatively get them to endorse the best solutions for people.
  • An architect of employer brand and employee experience. Not content with cautious, incremental improvements, you will embrace opportunity to find new ways of making your workplace the go-to destination for great talent. You will make the case for unrivaled investment in people, their learning, their growing, their mobility—nothing is more important to you than the employee experience.
  • A champion of innovation and agility. You will do all you can to get ahead of the business transformation curve, being among the first and loudest voices to reskill the workforce, leverage advances in technology, doggedly pursue ethical integrity on the part of leaders, and improve career opportunities for underrepresented populations.

So, ask yourself: “Should I nurture this ambition of someday being a CHRO, knowing it’s not what I think it is, and that it will be much harder than I think it will be?”

If the answer is no, maybe this role is not the best fit for you, or maybe it’s still too early in your career to know. If yes, make sure you are focused on the character qualities and leadership skills that are critical to future success.

Advocate for opportunities and experiences that weather-proof you to risk; test yourself and your ability to lead, rise up to influence the right outcomes, and let your results speak for themselves. But whatever you think and do, be relentlessly honest with yourself every step of the way.

To paraphrase a contributing editor to Inc. Magazine, the only definition of success that matters is “does it make you happy?” Or, put another way, “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” ― Maya Angelou.

Mark Englizian is a senior strategy advisor for the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and supports i4cp’s Up Next Cohort, an exclusive group focused on developing the next great HR leader. He is the former CHRO of the Walgreen Company, and also held senior HR roles with Amazon and Microsoft. He currently advises Boards of Directors, CEOs and CHROs on human capital matters. 

If you're looking to fill an existing CHRO role, considering i4cp's HR executive search firm.