Preparing Future HR Leaders

Tuesday, July 1, 2008
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I've had experience with a variety of businesses -- from The Walt Disney Co. to Xerox Corp. to PepsiCo to Gap Inc. -- and while the businesses might be different, the lessons are the same.

Taking on diverse experiences, with an increasingly global perspective, are essential to the preparation needed to respond to the complex business challenges facing large companies today. So, how do we prepare future HR leaders to successfully navigate the role of CHRO?

Today's global business environment and ever-changing workforce demand as much responsibility and accountability from the CHRO as from any C-suite executive -- but the role is not always as clear-cut. The issues we face every day require a wide range of skills and competencies, and yet HR professionals may not get the breadth of development needed to prepare them for strategic leadership.

To respond effectively to these business challenges, the HR talent pool must balance business expertise with an excellent technical background.

We have amazing new opportunities to influence and impact our businesses -- and as leaders, we are perfectly positioned to guide our organizations through these turbulent times. But with this opportunity, comes a great responsibility to foster growth and create knowledge-transfer opportunities for future HR leaders.

And beyond our own organizations, I believe that the academic community and cross-industry organizations are important partners in developing qualified and prepared CHROs.

Of course, regardless of your aspirations, it's imperative to take responsibility for your own career path and development.

Experiences such as working in high-growth businesses, business turnarounds and global challenges are critical for a well-rounded candidate. Being open to new roles, experiences and locations is critical. Recently, I was privileged to take on additional responsibility in the areas of corporate communications, social responsibility and environmental affairs for Gap Inc., which allows me to approach the business from a fresh perspective.

While it's important to take ownership of your own career and development, it's also important to look for opportunities where the top management at your company will give you the runway to become successful business leaders as well.

HR leaders must be business professionals with extraordinary HR capabilities that drive results. And given our opportunity to participate in critical business decisions on a daily basis, we also play the critical role of being advocates for employees as well.

It's a fine balance, and one that the best in HR accomplish seamlessly.

As I look at my own teams over the years, I'm most proud of the times that I've seen an HR executive take on stretch assignments that allowed him or her to further develop necessary business skills.

Recognize that becoming the top human resource officer for a company, whether large or small, is a journey, and it involves lifelong learning. Education, experience and support from your organization are all factors for success, but it's the learning over the course of your career journey that helps keep your skill sets fresh.

Our partners in the academic world are critical in helping develop professionals at all stages -- from filling the entry-level talent pipeline with undergraduates to specialized training later in one's career.

In fact, when academia and companies join hands, the partnership can generate new tools and resources for developing future leaders.

The Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies program is just such a resource to prepare future human resource leaders. In partnership with CAHRS, I was asked to develop a guide to understanding the CHRO position, which serves as a 'handbook for leaders' aiming for this role as their goal -- as well as anyone seeking further insight into the role. The guide is based on two key areas: the "science" and the "art" of human resource leadership.

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The "science" of the job ultimately comes down to being clear about the role of the CHRO. There are fundamentally four roles we're required to fill simultaneously -- external business leader, internal business partner, employee advocate and HR team leader.

These roles must stay in constant balance. It's important to never get so busy managing and governing your organization that you lose sight of being a visible and connected leader for your team and your own HR employees -- a challenge in today's fast-paced business environment.

The "art" is the personal part -- recognizing that board members, executives and employees are human beings first.

A successful CHRO needs to have the self awareness of the strengths and weaknesses you bring to the job as you coach and lead others in a global environment. It also means understanding the role of the board of directors, spending balanced time with all constituencies, being a business executive first, thinking globally while acting locally and developing both a personal as well as a professional network. This is, of course, the "soft stuff" -- and the hardest to do well.

Ultimately, there is no single or "right" path to the top seat. But there are several common factors necessary for success -- you'll have to take advantage of opportunities as they emerge, take risks and be open to adventure.

And for those of us who have been given the privilege of top roles, we have a mandate to bring more and better business professionals with extraordinary HR capabilities into the talent pool by working in partnership with our companies, industry organizations and academia.

As the role of CHRO changes and evolves, our legacy must be a commitment to help others move forward.

Eva Sage-Gavin is executive vice president of human resources, communications and corporate social responsibility, of Gap Inc. In this role, she guides the company's human resource and communications operations worldwide, including staffing, diversity, rewards, recognition, employee benefits, learning and development, social responsibility and environmental affairs as well as internal and external communications.

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