There’s no one specific track to the C-suite, especially if you’re in the HR field. You can rise up by taking increasingly prominent HR generalist positions or by targeting various HR specialty roles. You can stick with one employer or jump around every few years.
Calvin Crosslin, chief diversity officer at Lenovo and president of the Lenovo Foundation, says his advice for climbing to a CHRO role would be “a do as I say, not as I did” situation. Crosslin has spent his career in a variety of roles with Lenovo and IBM, rising up from his start as an HR generalist. But he says if he were to do it again, he would probably take on more HR specialist roles early in his career—and possibly in other industries beyond technology.
“You have to start with the end in mind. If you want to be a CHRO, you’re going to have to rotate through a number of centers of excellence, such as compensation and benefits,” Crosslin said during a recent edition of the SHRM Executive Network’s People + Strategy podcast. “If you just want to support a senior leader in a business unit, perhaps then you could be an HR generalist or partner for most of your career.”
Crosslin suggests HR professionals who are early in their careers should move through different HR specialty roles that they find more challenging than, say, a lower-level talent acquisition position.
“For example, I probably should have done compensation much earlier in my career,” Crosslin said. “Instead, I decided to go focus on talent acquisition, and I never did make it through that compensation rotation. Now, being a generalist for as long as I have, I’ve touched enough comp and executive comp to be dangerous. But if I had it all over to do again, I would’ve probably rotated through compensation first and then started rotating through those other areas like leadership development and organization behavior that I found more fun, but also probably lended themselves to my talents and tended to be easier for me.”
Jump Among Industries, and Work Outside HR
In addition to taking on a variety of roles within the HR space, Crosslin said HR professionals can advance their careers best by getting experience at a variety of companies.
“I have been incredibly fortunate to work for two companies that really invest in you as a professional,” Crosslin said. “But if I were doing this over again, I would probably not just jump companies, but I would jump industries. Because it’s such a rich experience when you’re in health care at one point, then you’re in IT, then you’re in the financial sector. So I am a fan of taking opportunities and stretch assignments. And sometimes that means moving around companies and moving around industries.”
Those stretch assignments can also include positions outside HR, which help give you a more well-rounded business background, which is a must for any CHRO.
“I’m a marketing major, and there’s been times that I’ve had roles that lended themselves to that marketing background. They were less about HR and more about branding,” Crosslin said. “So I absolutely am in favor of going outside of HR and getting the real experience in other corporate functions.”
Other Insights from Calvin Crosslin on the People + Strategy Podcast
Stay interviews are your best tool in proactive retention
“We employ stay interviews here at Lenovo, … and it’s a conversation around both compensation factors and noncompensation factors. First and foremost, you have to make sure people are paid market rate. Then next, you have to find out what are the things that really motivate that person beyond just compensation. It could be key projects or career progression or more-technical roles. I know of many situations where some leaders are not necessarily motivated by what you do for them specifically, but what types of tools you give them to help their team. … You have to treat it as a very unique discussion with each employee.”
Teach employees how to be good mentors and mentees
“I am not a big fan of formal mentor programs that partner people together, because I think there’s an organic relationship that develops that matching based on resumes or algorithms can’t necessarily do. So, what I like to see is when we teach people to be good mentors and we teach people to be good mentees. … There are a lot of senior leaders oftentimes that are good at giving advice and not always as great at pausing and listening to what a person really wants out of their career, out of their life. And so I think teaching people to be more like an executive coach in terms of really listening and then enabling the person to guide and direct their career.”
Focus the office experience on collaboration
“When you hear people say things like, ‘I get to work from home today,’ or ‘I get to work remote,’ or ‘I have to go into the office,’ it gives you a clear indication of their preferences. But one of the things you can do to balance that, particularly in hybrid environment, is you give people a workplace that is truly collaborative when it’s most beneficial and when it’s most productive for them to be face-to-face and collaborative. … I think offering people flexibility and giving leaders the ability to help navigate that with their employees is the way to try to accomplish that hybrid or that flexible model.”