HR: An Executive Training Ground?

The electorate has spoken. Obama's lack of experience? Irrelevant. If the recent political race in the U.S. brought nothing else to light, it certainly raised the profile of how decision-makers must weigh the attributes of direct experience, relevancy, trust, hope and leadership in selecting a top executive. So, too, are businesses wrestling with such issues. Both Microsoft and LinkedIn considered the merits and trade-offs of selecting executives with no specific human resources experience to head up their HR organizations.

The Microsoft path

CEO Steve Ballmer raised a few eyebrows with his selection of Lisa Brummel as Microsoft's HR director in 2005. The software giant was facing product and stock price headaches as well as declining morale, so Brummel's lack of HR experience worried some, even though she had been with the firm since 1989. Previously the general manager of one of Microsoft's consumer business entities, Brummel was tasked with refreshing the culture and the employee value proposition. Ballmer considered Brummel an ideal candidate because she "knew intimately how the company worked" and "could relate to employees because she grew up professionally at Microsoft, a workplace unlike any other" ("Reshaping," 2007). Ballmer says he knows his appointment of Brummel to the top HR spot is working because Microsoft's "employee poll tells us what 80,000 people are thinking. And what 80,000 people are thinking is very important."

The LinkedIn journey

Dan Nye, former CEO of professional networking Web site LinkedIn, went through a similar challenge. After the firm ballooned from 60 to 300 employees in 2007-2008, Nye embarked on a search for a vice president of human resources who could leverage the value of LinkedIn's people for the rapidly growing firm. Interviews left Nye with a sense of "disappointment with the intellectual caliber" of many of the candidates (White, 2008). At the same time, Nye had been seeking a permanent spot for Arvind Rajan, a consultant for LinkedIn who had impressed Nye with his critical-thinking skills. Rajan was bright, had already established Nye's trust, had strong analytical and leadership skills, and had demonstrated his ability to work with various groups. But, alas, Rajan had no HR experience. After mulling the decision over with various business partners, Nye accepted the risks of Rajan's less-than-complete HR toolkit in favor of the trust and comfort level he felt with Rajan's strong generalist qualities as a leader.


Certainly, each of these decisions appears to have been arrived at after thoughtful consideration. Yet the decisions raise some questions. Why is it deemed perfectly acceptable to place someone with no related experience in HR but not in other functions? Does it reinforce a perception that "HR" equals "people-related" and, therefore, any executive should be able to handle it? Or does it prove that HR is an ideal training ground for executive talent?

The negative spin

Some may feel that the idea of placing a generalist executive in HR is a dismissive statement about the necessity or value of HR expertise. Why not place a charismatic, trustworthy, intelligent thinker with no financial experience in a CFO position? Would a proven leader with these attributes but no direct manufacturing experience be a viable candidate for the VP of manufacturing? Those with this viewpoint might hold that this is just another slam to the HR profession: "Come head up HR ... no experience necessary."

Also, HR has traditionally been a field heavily populated by women, employing "about three times as many women as men," according to PersonnelToday, which sponsored a roundtable debate on why so few men enter the field of HR. It may be argued that the soft-skills reputation of HR discourages men from choosing this career path, thereby cementing its image as a lost highway for executive development. Debate participant Simon Foster, senior client director of the Centre for High Performance Development, said, "The problem is that HR is just not one of the boxes you have to tick on the way up" (Willock, 2007).

The positive spin

But debate moderator Rob Willock insisted, "We need to do a PR job on the function to prove that a stint in HR, for any executive, could make them a better manager." Proof of the value of working in HR may lie in the old adage that the way to succeed in business is to surround oneself with intelligent, successful people. The HR function is especially dependent on individuals with very different fields of expertise. A specialist in talent acquisition will have a skill set that is notably different from the skill set of the person who develops competitive compensation structures and reward programs. An expert in creating innovative learning and development experiences for employees will have unique attributes that differ from those of an expert in diffusing legal situations. Leading such a diverse group of experts requires, above all, a healthy respect for the intricacies of each specialty, even absent directly related experience.

Leading this kind of group could well be an ideal development tool for potential CEOs. It requires the ability to draw out performance from multiple areas of specialization - performance that will contribute to a positive impact on the overall corporate picture. While an individual rarely reaches the top executive position with experience in every function, leading a carefully chosen team of experts can help bridge such knowledge gaps.

i4cp's recommendations

Time will tell how well non-HR executives fare in top HR roles. But regardless of the career path taken by the HR leader, here are a few strategies that might serve an HR executive well if he or she wishes to move up to the CEO chair:
  • Stay attuned to the board's top concerns. Understand the trends that affect your business and, when given the chance, present the board with potential solutions to "pain point" issues along with recommendations for action.
  • Be an active participant on the executive team. Ask questions, provide resources, and volunteer for projects that broaden skills. Above all, know the business.
  • Develop the kind of expertise on group dynamics that chief executives need. Build trust and relationships individually, but also facilitate HR team collaboration.
  • In today's economy, be especially mindful about cost-cutting decisions. When possible, favor productivity boosters over talent-slashing and favor knowledge-sharing over training budget-slashing.
  • Seek out opportunities to identify innovation in action and recognize/reward it. This is especially meaningful if the idea saves time or money in these economically challenging times.
  • Keep your fingers on the pulse of the workforce through both high-tech and high-touch methods. Surveys, blogs, video townhall meetings and lunchroom roundtables are all viable ways of staying in touch with employees.
HR executives can view their realm as a microcosm of the CEO suite. If these executives have a strong knowledge of the business, industry, market, customers and employees, they may bring a unique ability to orchestrate overall success via a broad group of contributors, just as a CEO must.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:

  • Reshaping Microsoft's HR agenda. (2007, September 10). BusinessWeek. Retrieved from
  • White, E. (2008, October 13). Tough call: Hire for skills, or leadership? Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from
  • Willock, R. (2007, April 3). Roundtable debate: Why are there so few men in HR? PersonnelToday. Retrieved from