Partner at Heidrick & Struggles’ industrial practice, based in Hong Kong.
How can I make the jump from CHRO to CEO?
I currently run the Hong Kong HR department of an Asia-wide organisation and have been told by my superior that if I stay on this track, I’m looking at making regional CHRO in the next five years. While this is a fantastic target, one day I would like to be a CEO. Is being CHRO a good springboard for a leap to the top job, or is such a move difficult? If so, should I try and transition out of HR in the near future – to, say, finance – to increase my chances of making CEO?
While HR is increasingly regarded as a strategic and critical function, it’s not valued equally in all organisations or under all leaders. While some business leaders consider their HR business partner among their most important partners in running the business, others still view HR more traditionally – as personnel administration.
Even in organisations where HR holds prominence, it’s rare to see HR functional leaders ascend to the top job. Intimate knowledge of a company’s markets, customer base, channels, operations, financial acumen and a track record of general management or P&L leadership of relevant scale are prerequisites for the CEO role. Hence, CEOs typically come up through tracks such as finance, then operations or sales, marketing, and business development to general management.
Moving to a different function, however, isn’t easy. Placing senior executives in overall business or functional leadership roles around the world, we look for candidates for specific roles with directly relevant qualifications, experience and competencies. However, sometimes there can be opportunities to move to other functions within a company over time.
As such, you might want to start a dialogue with your boss and indicate an interest in another function to begin broadening your experience. A marketing or product management role, or sales or sales support role, are possibilities that require less specialised skills. Transitioning to a role in the finance or manufacturing function, for example, would likely require more technical skills.
An alternative route to a different function would be to earn new academic qualifications, for example, an MBA. This, in combination with conversations with your boss, could lead to a new functional opportunity at your current employer over time. Alternatively, if you undertake an MBA full-time, you could reposition yourself for new roles with new employers when re-entering the workforce upon completion.
Data analysis on the Fortune 500 CEOs shows the majority of these leaders have their functional foundations in finance, but eventually transitioned to, and spent several years in, operations – ultimately in a chief operations officer role, before becoming CEO. Perhaps transitioning to the finance function is the best first step on your path toward CEO.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as How can I make the jump from CHRO to CEO?