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How to Chart a Path to the C-Suite

Five HR executives share the moves they made and the skills they learned to make it to the top.

​Becoming a chief human resources officer (CHRO) or a chief people officer and joining a company’s C-suite is the goal of many rising HR professionals. It certainly is a great achievement to be placed in charge of all talent and seen as a key partner in the organization’s culture and strategy. If you’re an HR professional with your eyes set on making it to the top, the question then becomes: How do you get there?

Of course, the path to the C-suite isn’t the same for everyone. Some CHROs know from the start that HR is their calling. Others find their way there more slowly while exploring different areas of the business. And while it’s not unheard of for a CHRO to have no HR experience, most come from the field. In fact, the two titles HR executives are mostly likely to hold before moving to the C-suite are director or vice president of human resources, Payscale reports. 

According to the HR executives interviewed for this article, those who want to make the leap to the top level must be curious, passionate, and deeply knowledgeable in both the HR and business arenas. Jumping on opportunities that come your way—and being willing to go off the beaten path at times—is crucial, too. Opportunities that give you more companywide exposure can serve as especially helpful steppingstones but may require you to take a more meandering, or even lateral, route to the top. 

That can sometimes be an advantage, says Salvador Malo, chief people officer for Fragomen, a global immigration services firm based in New York City. “Lateral moves, while not intuitively appealing and seemingly a distraction, are in fact essential,” he says. “They provide a breadth of experience without which it is unusual to be invited to a CHRO role.”

Many CHROs also have a specialty, usually something HR-adjacent and topical or even cutting-edge. For Tara Favors, CHRO and executive vice president of Mutual of America Financial Group in New York City, it was an interest in organizational psychology.

“I became fascinated with the idea of marrying people with the systems and functions” to achieve company goals, she says. 

For Malo, it was people analytics. “I happened to have experience in both HR and data science,” he says, “so I actively sought to participate in the ongoing revolution.”

A whopping 87 percent of HR executives think HR tech, data science and people analytics will be a crucial competency for future CHROs, according to an Adecco Group survey. And if you want to make top dollar in the CHRO role, Payscale found that expertise in the following areas boosts CHRO salaries the most:

  • Mergers and acquisitions.
  • Strategy.
  • International human resources.

Regardless of how they get there, HR professionals who aspire to the C-suite should be well-versed in business topics such as client development and market analysis and should know how to run an IT team and manage a business portfolio, Malo says. 

“People decisions are often just a corollary to broader business discussions,” he adds, “so a CHRO must be well-versed in the language of finance.”

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Salvador Malo says he started his HR career by dipping his toes in the water rather than diving in headfirst. It began in 2001, when a friend and former colleague at McKinsey & Co. invited him to work as an executive search consultant. Today, as chief people officer at Fragomen, he considers talent acquisition to be one of the most critical duties in the HR field, but back then, he still didn’t regard HR as his calling. 

“My background was technical, my early career had focused on business strategy, and I had become a recruiter almost by happenstance,” he says. “None of it spelled HR as a lifelong profession.”

That all changed once Malo began working on succession planning and performance appraisals and “found the talent management space to be more intellectually rewarding than I had ever imagined,” he says. 

Soon, he was building assessment frameworks based on behavioral competencies, learning about psychometrics and recognizing just how much impact people had on business. 

“Talent is often a company’s largest cost item, and even a small increase in its effectiveness—through higher retention, better hiring outcomes, more-productive work habits, a more engaging culture—can yield huge benefits,” he says.

Malo had found his niche in the HR world: data science. His passion for HR data analysis led him to take a role as global head of workforce analytics for Stockholm-based telecommunications company Ericsson. The position broadened his experience working with globally dispersed departments—a common thread for CHROs. It also gave him the “unique opportunity to build a people analytics function from scratch, hiring and developing a team across several countries, most notably in India, a hotspot for programmers, statisticians and data analysts,” he says.

But Malo considers the watershed moment of his career to be when he assumed the role of senior director of HR strategy at Microsoft in 2019.

“Not only did this allow me to experience how best-in-class people operations and culture transformation are carried out, but it forced me to consider the big picture—one that spanned all subfunctions and geographies across a vast, highly complex organization,” he says. “In hindsight, I realize that, prior to that role, I wasn’t equipped to lead HR as a whole.”

He points to his own career as an example of how HR professionals don’t have to follow the most linear path to the C-suite. 

“People in midcareer should not expect to be promoted vertically to the top,” he says. “They should learn as many different skills as they can, rather than sticking to the same center of excellence or HRBP [HR business partner] role.”

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Rose Ann Garza spent much of her college years and the early days of her professional career training restaurant team members and filling job openings in the food service industry. What she learned from those experiences was that she enjoyed helping people learn.

“I then loved watching those same people I helped develop as new hires eventually get promoted and move into management roles within the organization,” says Garza, CHRO for Kerbey Lane Café, a collection of family-owned restaurants in central Texas. 

In her current role, Garza combines that love of helping people develop their skills with a connection to the hospitality industry. It took her some time, though, to learn the HR ropes that led her to the C-suite. That was especially true because Garza’s first official HR role was in a department of one. With no one else in HR to consult with, Garza says, she recognized that continuing her education, finding a mentor and connecting with a peer group of other HR professionals would be beneficial. That led her to get her Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) certification and join the local SHRM chapter in Austin. 

“Austin SHRM has been and is the No. 1 thing that made a difference in my career and ultimately led me to my current role as CHRO,” she says. Through the chapter, she found reputable vendors for her company, made friends and gained mentors. 

Garza also credits a gutsy move she made early in her career with helping her advance to the C-suite. It happened after she noticed that HR was the only department not represented at company strategy meetings. 

“In one of the scariest moves of my career, I asked for a meeting with the leaders of company initiatives and shared my thoughts on how important it was that HR be included,” she says. “I knew I had important insight into what we were doing because it was my job to be the voice of our people.”

Getting involved in companywide meetings and discussions is crucial for advancement, Garza says. It’s also important to “have a full understanding of what your organization does,” she adds. 

Garza gained this understanding by making a request when she first joined Kerbey Lane Café as director of people operations, a position she held for 15 years before becoming CHRO. Although she already had a background in restaurants, she asked to spend her first six weeks on the job working in the company’s cafés alongside people from various departments. 

“It was through doing that I learned who the organization was and who our team members were,” she says. “Knowing the financials, understanding them, and having a good relationship with your controller or CFO is also key.”

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Edmond Hughes didn’t set out to work in HR; he had plans to be a chemical engineer. 

But getting a taste for business while working as a labor relations representative for General Motors caused him to rethink what he wanted in a career. 

Hughes discovered that he liked working in the manufacturing industry, where the work resulted in a tangible product. He also liked managing people and participating in negotiations. 

Labor and manufacturing would become a common thread in his career choices. That includes his current role, his first in the C-suite, as executive vice president and CHRO for Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), a global engineering and defense technologies provider. 

Prior to moving to the C-suite, Hughes spent 16 years in HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding division and 15 years at TRW, a global technology company that supplies systems for passenger cars and commercial vehicles. 

While at TRW, where he oversaw dozens of manufacturing plants, Hughes made many of the moves that helped advance his career. That includes joining the company’s management development program, a two-year rotational program between business units across the company for employees with an MBA. 

“Because I worked at the corporate headquarters, I got exposed to the different business units across the corporation,” he says. 

Hughes worked in numerous departments at TRW and bounced around between locations in Tennessee, Michigan and Arizona. He saw each new assignment as an advancement opportunity, but it wasn’t always easy. 

Moving so often with a young family was extremely tough, he says, as was learning to balance work with home life. It’s important, though, to be flexible with your plans, he notes. 

“Once you achieve your goals, then reflect, sit back and ask what’s next,” he advises.

Getting as much broad HR work experience as possible and taking on tough tasks that stretch what you know and can do is important to put yourself on a path toward the C-suite, Hughes says.

“Don’t just work in one function,” he advises. “Take on assignments that expand your horizons, are going to be tough and cause you to operate differently, but are going to give you new experiences.”

And along the way, Hughes suggests finding mentors and forming strong relationships with co-workers—two groups of people who can be sources of opportunities, recommendations and learning moments. He adds that good mentors can also help you learn patience.

“Careers don’t happen overnight,” he says. “There are experiences you need. Having individuals as mentors in your life can help you avoid making dumb decisions because you’re chasing dreams.”

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A deep sense of curiosity and the willingness to be a lifelong learner are qualities that can help get you to the C-suite, says Daniel Bordeleau, chief people officer of Interface Security Systems. Bordeleau recommends choosing varied roles that will add to the breadth of your experience while then learning as much as you can in each role to add depth to your experience.

“As I gained breadth in my own career, I gained depth by going as deep as possible in every role—learning the business, learning the functional HR capability and learning the external market forces,” he says. “And just when I started to get a good hold on learning all of these areas, I found myself being moved to the next role and doing it all over again.”

Bordeleau sees value in working in positions outside of HR, such as finance, sales or strategy, to learn more about the business, but he also believes people can immerse themselves in the business from the HR function, too. 

“HR leaders need to have a strong business and commercial acumen in order to be a successful business exec leading an organization’s people agenda,” he says. “Knowing the different functions of your business allows you to be much more in touch with the employee experience and have a greater impact as an HR leader.”

Continuing to gain that experience as a midcareer HR professional doesn’t necessarily have to mean working grueling hours. Bordeleau stresses the need for team leaders to learn to work smarter, not harder.

“I’ve learned the importance of needing to take care of myself in order for me to be at my best so I could effectively lead others and influence at a significantly larger scale,” he says. “In today’s HR landscape, taking care of yourself as an HR professional couldn’t be more important. Our role as HR leaders has evolved amid the pandemic, the rise of technology and automation, and the volatility of the broader political and socioeconomic landscape that we are all operating in.”

Bordeleau is fairly new to the chief people officer role. He assumed the position in December 2021 after serving as HR director for a division of PepsiCo. And he has a lot on his plate, from supporting a new CEO transition to implementing a new HR tech stack. To keep his workload manageable, he regularly considers ways to streamline and improve operations.

“I find myself constantly pushing myself and my team and saying, ‘There’s got to be a better way for us to do this’ or ‘Is there a technology that can take this on?’ ” he says. “We have to be equally focused on streamlining and automating areas that are less value-added. If we don’t, the result is burnout from taking on the new expectations of HR leaders.”

Bordeleau also recommends that HR executives hone their ability to find balance between being a business leader and an employee advocate—a key skill for those representing HR in the C-suite today.

“As HR leaders, we need to be attuned to what future talent is seeking, we need to understand our current employee sentiment by having a clear listening strategy, and then we need to effectively bring this to life while being conscious of the operating environment,” he says.

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Tara Favors knew early on that she wanted to work in HR. After graduating from Syracuse University with a major in psychology (a common undergraduate degree for CHROs) and a minor in HR, she immediately pursued a master’s degree in HR from The New School, a university in New York City.

But Favors doesn’t necessarily think you need an advanced degree, much less a degree in HR, to make it to the C-suite. What you do need is deep knowledge about the HR discipline, including executive compensation and strategy, she says.

“You have to think about people, but you have to understand the world they operate in. What’s the business strategy? How do you create the proper system and culture? What do you emphasize to make those people succeed?” she says. “You have to have both the people and the system focus, whether you’re just starting out or at my position.” 

All of which, she believes, you can do from an HR seat. 

Deep HR experience is something that more CEOs say they want in a CHRO, and the more varied that experience, the better, according to the Talent Strategy Group’s CHRO Trends 2021 Report. Favors considers herself fortunate to have worked for several major corporations, including Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, American Express and now Mutual of America Financial Group. Her first job at Merrill (formerly Merrill Lynch) was particularly helpful in giving her a solid foundation that has served her well in her career. The role was rotational—every six months, she moved between disciplines, picking up knowledge and experience in areas such as recruiting, executive development, compensation, and leadership development.

“Because I moved around every six months, I learned how to form relationships and bridge one set of info onto another,” she says.

Favors has always worked in an HR role. “I haven’t found a business job I want to do more than the HR work I’m doing,” she says. 

Not every role has been a perfect fit; however, even the experience of working for an organization that didn’t align with her personal vision and beliefs still proved valuable. 

“You probably learn more from those unexpectedly challenging experiences than the experiences you planned,” she says. “It teaches you perseverance and highlights your own values.” 

For that reason, she recommends taking risks and seeking out roles that allow you to pick up new skills. But, she cautions, it’s important to work at a company that matches your values as your career advances. 

“When you become more senior, you want to be in a place that’s consistent with who you are,” she says. “That matters.”  

Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Images by iStock.