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During a panel discussion among a group of chief human resource officers at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Strategy Conference, attendees learned that their career advancement is up to them and that the road to the executive office may not be a direct one.
SHRM Foundation board member Libby Sartain, SPHR, former head of HR for Yahoo Inc. and Southwest Airlines, moderated the panel, which included Rick Williams, senior vice president of human resources at Printpack Inc.; Rebecca Cantieri, vice president of human resources at SurveyMonkey; Jack Farnan, senior vice president of human resources of Mitchell International; and Natalie Dopp, vice president of human resources at LifeLock.
“There is no one ideal path to CHRO,” Farnan said. “Anyone can get there through a circuitous path with the right skill sets and determination.”
Each panel member took a circuitous route to the top. Farnan began his career as a high-school English teacher before becoming a writer, and then transitioned into human resources, staying five years at most companies.
Describing his lucky break, Farnan said: “Then one day I got a call from a woman I sat next to at a breakfast—probably a SHRM breakfast—and she said our company is looking for a head of HR. Then she asked, ‘Do you have an international background?’ and I said, ‘No, but I can do that.’ ”
Farnan and the other executives said that whether it was questions about benefits, executive compensation, salary forecasting, governance or regulations, they soaked up as much information from their own individual experiences and took advice from peers, mentors and their professional networks to help them in their roles.
“You need to know your business inside and out,” Dopp emphasized. “Make the CFO [chief financial officer] your best friend. That will make you very successful at the executive level.”
When asked what they did within the first 90 days of assuming their new leadership roles, the panelists said they met individually with each member of their executive team, learned their individual business’s objectives and how those objectives aligned with HR, participated in assimilation training, and began streamlining HR processes and building relationships at the top.
They also talked with leaders within their organization.
“In those conversations with leaders,” Dopp suggested, “ask them what’s working and what’s not working from an HR perspective so you know where gaps are” and how HR can help fill in those gaps.
Dopp encouraged HR professionals to remember that the relationships built over time “stay with you. How you get to this level is because someone knows you and you’ve proven you can do the job even if you don’t have every skill set; their belief in you can help.
She added: “I want to make sure I’m giving back to this HR profession the way it has given back to me, and I want to make sure that’s all of our responsibility as leaders.”
Aliah D. Wright, author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites (SHRM, 2013), is manager/editor of the business leadership and technology disciplines for SHRM Online.