Why CHROs May Make Good CEOs

By Dori Meinert Mar 1, 2015
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High-performing CEOs have more in common with high-performing CHROs than they do with most other high-level executives, including chief financial officers, chief marketing officers and chief information officers, according to recent research by recruiting consultancy Korn Ferry and the University of Michigan. I don't think anybody would have expected that,” says Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who worked with Korn Ferry on the study.

But perhaps they should have: CEOs today are expected to have more than just good operational skills and financial acumen. People skills are critically important as well. After all, a CEO is tasked with creating both a corporate identity that will resonate with customers as well as a corporate culture that will attract top talent to join—and stay at—the company.

The researchers compared 14 attributes, or aspects of leadership, that fell into three categories: leadership style, thinking style and emotional competencies. They drew on Korn Ferry’s database of thousands of executives’ self-assessments conducted over several decades.

To pinpoint high-performing executives, the researchers studied only the top-paid 10 percent of leaders in each senior executive role, including 2,150 CEOs and 694 CHROs.

Chief operating officers (COOs) were also found to have traits similar to those of CEOs—a finding that did not surprise the researchers because the roles are so similar.

“It is clear that CHROs are cut from the same cloth as CEOs and COOs,” states the report, CEOs and CHROs: Crucial Allies and Potential Successors.

The similarities show that CHROs can be critical allies for CEOs, says Ellie Filler, a managing partner with Korn Ferry who leads the Human Resources Center of Expertise for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

What Can CHROs Offer as CEOs?

  • They understand their strengths and weaknesses. They know when to surround themselves with others who have complementary skills.
  • They excel at managing others. They may be able to put aside ego and lead others to achieve organizational goals.
  • They have deep insights into their organizations. They understand how to integrate business processes to give the organization a common identity.
  • They know how to serve external stakeholders through internal actions. They use HR practices to encourage customer-centric behavior.

Source: Korn Ferry.

The CHRO’s role is to help the CEO by ensuring that the organization has the right talent, structure and culture to achieve its goals. As a coach, a CHRO also may help the CEO recognize the unintended consequences of his or her behaviors.

“The better CHROs will see if there is a dichotomy—if the CEO is saying one thing publicly but behaving in a different way,” Filler says.

CHROs may also be a hidden pool of CEO successor candidates, she says.

But in order to develop as CEO material, CHROs must have managerial experience and profit-and-loss responsibility. For the long-term benefit of the organization, CHROs also should help develop their high-potential HR talent to work in business operations, she says.

The research found that 42 percent of high-performing CHROs are female, a significantly higher percentage than for other executive roles. If more CHROs were to become CEOs, the gender diversity at the top that many companies seek could be achieved.

All CEOs are expected to have core business skills. “But the differentiator when you get the job is talent, leadership and culture capabilities,” Ulrich says. “That’s the knowledge that the CHRO brings to the discussion.”

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