HR Leadership Column

The Making of a CEO

Mary Barra's recent promotion to the top post at General Motors is noteworthy not only because she's the first woman to head a major automaker, but also because it demonstrates that time spent in HR can help build important competencies for those being groomed to someday lead a corporation.

Monday, January 20, 2014
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The business press was buzzing last month with the news that a new CEO was being appointed at General Motors. While the appointment of a new CEO at a company as large and storied as GM would be newsworthy in and of itself, there was something especially newsworthy about this appointment.

The new CEO of GM would be a woman! 

On Jan. 15, the GM board announced that Mary Barra, a long-time GM employee, would succeed Dan Akerson as chief executive officer. She's not only the fifth CEO at GM in the past 15 years, she's also the first female CEO of a major global automaker. She joins just 22 other female CEOs among U.S. companies in the Fortune 500.

In the press release announcing Barra's new role, GM highlighted her qualifications, noting that:

With 33 years of experience at GM, Barra has risen through a series of manufacturing, engineering, and senior staff positions. She is a leader in the company's ongoing turnaround, revitalizing GM's product-development process resulting in the launch of critically acclaimed new products while delivering record product quality ratings and higher customer satisfaction.

According to her bio, Barra served as vice president for global-manufacturing engineering, a plant manager and executive director of competitive-operations engineering, and held several engineering and staff positions during her time at the automaker. Most recently, she served as executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain.

Impressive credentials, indeed.

While I'm no doubt happy to see another woman at the head of one of the largest global corporations, what caught my eye was the fact that Barra served as vice president for global human resources from 2009 to 2011 -- when the company was undergoing a bankruptcy and restructuring as part of the multibillion-dollar government bailout/rescue.

Why do I think this is worth noting? 

Well, it's not because I believe this signals a trend for HR executives to become CEOs. It doesn't.

Rather, I think it's notable that one of the developmental roles for Barra (who was obviously part of GM's succession plan) included a stint in HR.

And that stint in HR -- although relatively brief -- probably helped her get the top job.

Consider this: As vice president for global HR, she gained experience being responsible for workforce management of more than 200,000 employees, while gaining valuable change-management experience with the restructuring required by the 2009 bankruptcy. These experiences, in turn, provided her with: greater familiarity with the entire organizational structure of GM; a good grasp of the labor costs across various divisions, products and services; and most importantly, an opportunity to build working relationships with business leaders across the entire enterprise.

I believe her appointment demonstrates that time spent in HR can help build important competencies for those who hope to someday take the corner office and lead an organization.

But HR executives who point to Mary Barra as an example of how a company promoted an HR executive to the top job are making a big mistake. While HR experience may have helped her candidacy, Barra is really an example of the value of good succession planning because it affords candidates a broad range of experiences that maximizes their potential for success and grooms them for greater responsibilities.

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HR executives who aspire to the corner office shouldn't focus on Barra's time in HR. Focus instead on the breadth and depth of her experience in all things GM and auto-industry related. Like many other CEOs, she got the job because she knew the company's culture, she knew the business, she knew the products, and she knew the industry. Her stint in HR just highlights the importance of understanding human resource management to better know the business.

If you have aspirations of becoming a CEO, then focus on your own professional development and look for opportunities to work outside of HR. It will not only enable you to develop a deeper understanding of the business and industry you work in. It will provide you with a new perspective on what it's like to be a customer of the HR function. And, perhaps most importantly, you'll have a greater understanding of the challenges facing other executives within the organization as they work to meet their numbers. Even if you never become a CEO, you'll be a better HR leader.

And if you have no aspirations for the corner office, look around at your HR team. Are there any high-potential candidates who might benefit from an assignment outside of HR? Are you willing to make the sacrifice, by encouraging them to get non-HR experience, knowing that you risk losing them from the function forever?

Wouldn't it be something if that same member of the HR team who you encouraged may someday become your CEO?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.





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