Eight Skills Needed to Become the Chief HR Officer

The CHRO role is much different than a top divisional HR role or a position leading a center of excellence within the function. So what does it take to reach the C-suite?

Friday, November 1, 2013
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As the leader of the human resource practice at a retained executive-search firm, I have had the opportunity to interact with many HR executives. The most common questions that come from executives who aspire to move into their first chief human resource officer role involve what it takes to be offered that top job. 

My response usually is "Why do you want that top position?" I ask this because, in my experience, the CHRO role is much different than a top divisional HR role or a position leading a center of excellence within the function. Often, when we dig deeper into a conversation, the HR executive will come to the conclusion that he or she would be much more satisfied continuing in a more operational HR position or moving up within a particular specialty area, such as compensation and benefits or talent management. However, if they truly have the CHRO role as their goal, what do they have to do to be considered a strong and viable candidate?

As you can imagine, every company has different perspectives and needs based on their business. In particular, there are additional administrative and compliance responsibilities inherent in a public company CHRO role versus those found in a private company. But there are some critical competencies you must possess to be seriously considered for the top HR role at any organization:

1.    Emotional Intelligence: First and foremost, you need to have outstanding interpersonal and communication skills. However, that is not all. You also must be a great listener, trustworthy and authentic in your interactions with others. 

2.    Effective Leader: Do you attract, retain and develop a team effectively? Do other colleagues want to work with and for you? Are you seen as a mentor to others? In addition, are you viewed as an effective leader across the company with your peers? Do other members in the C-Suite seek you out for advice and counsel?

3.    Driver of Change: The head of HR typically is sought after to drive change across an organization; therefore, do you effectively communicate with others about the rationale for change and help influence others to "get on the change bus"? If you encounter resistance, do you know how to regroup and try to persuade others in a convincing manner why the change is critical for the organization? Are you persistent and positive in your approach?

4.    Board Experience: Most likely, the head of HR will be engaged at the board level and be involved with the compensation committee of the board. Prior board experience is usually very helpful and many times required. Executive presence and strong platform skills are critical to connect with board members.

5.    Executive Compensation Expertise: Although the new CHRO doesn't have to be an executive compensation expert, it is important to have a strong grounding in the basics. Many times, you can count on your total rewards executive to support you, but you still should have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and how these pieces fit into a larger organizational picture and drive behavior.

6.    Strategic: It is important to have a broader view of the needs of the entire enterprise versus a division or department. Will you have the capability of thinking and operating strategically to ensure you are aligned with the current and future needs of the business? At the same time, most HR executives still have to be open to rolling up their sleeves to get the work done. With the lean nature of organizations, this tends to be a necessity. 

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7.    Financial Acumen: The human resources function usually owns the largest variable cost that its company possesses: the workforce. A good CHRO should be able to -- at a minimum -- read the P&L statement as well as his or her peers in IT or Legal. Boards and Executive Teams respond to initiatives that have a measurable bottom line impact. The CHRO must be able to express him or herself on these terms in order to fully participate in the strategic conversation.

8.    Business Focus: Think business first and human resources second. Understand the business, its trends and how you can utilize all of the necessary tools and levers to ensure the company is meeting or exceeding its expectations. Be intellectually curious about the business, ask thoughtful and insightful questions and understand what it takes for the business to thrive.

 If you are seeking that top HR role but missing a few of these experiences, now is the time to expand your background. Ask to get involved in an executive compensation project or take a course to better understand the issues. Influence your current CHRO to allow you to join a board meeting or compensation committee meeting. Join a non-profit board to gain some exposure to board protocols. Volunteer for projects leading change management initiatives. Accept speaking engagements. All of these activities will be helpful in your professional development but will also broaden your connections and elevate your visibility with other leaders.

Finally, the best way to move into your first CHRO role is to ensure you are performing at your highest level in your current role. Your contributions will be recognized and, clearly, you'll be on your way to being considered for your first CHRO role.

Sally Stetson is co-founder and principal at executive-search firm Salveson Stetson Group, where she leads the firm's HR practice. 

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