The Succession Conundrum

This article accompanies Partners at the Helm.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013
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They have the boss' ear, work as close by as the office next door and have become partners in forging corporate strategy, working closely with every unit in the firm.

But it seems that there's still one thing that most of today's chief human resource officers cannot do: take the place of the CEO when he or she leaves office, or even be considered a leading contender for the job.

Experts and several CHROs agree there's a bit of a Catch-22 at work, because the fact that the CHRO is not knee deep in Machiavellian C-suite succession politics may be exactly the reason why the chief executive and other top corporate officers consider him or her a trusted adviser and a confidant.

"It's an interesting question -- every CEO at [his or her] annual meeting says that people are their greatest resource," says Kevin Cashman, a senior partner in Korn/Ferry's Minneapolis-based Leadership Talent and Consulting group. "But if that's true, then why isn't the 'people person' elected into the top role?"

The short answer, according to most experts, is that "programmatic" experience -- that is, working in a unit of the company that has a direct impact on the bottom line such as sales, product development or even finance -- is still seen as an almost non-negotiable requirement for moving up to become the CEO.

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Mara Swan, who's currently senior vice president for global strategy and talent at Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup and who'd previously run HR at Miller and Molson Coors, says she agrees with the notion that a CEO needs to have that type of programmatic experience, and adds that ambitious executives might consider working in those fields for a time early in their careers before they tackle human resources.

Susan Meisinger, author, speaker, consultant, and former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, argues that it's a plus for the CHRO to not be a candidate in the corporate presidential race, because it's not just the CEO but other senior executives who will confide in him or her. "The CHRO is in a unique position to be an honest broker for difficult conversations," she says.

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