The New CHRO Standard: Superhero

Selection criteria is getting tougher for the executive HR position

By Steve Bates Feb 10, 2016
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Think you have what it takes to become a chief human resources officer (CHRO)? If your phone and e-mail have not been blowing up recently with overtures from recruiters, it might be because organizations keep raising the bar for potential CHROs.

Gone are the days when HR expertise and seniority provided a clear path to that office. In fact, many boards and CEOs are hesitant to hire CHROs who have spent most or all of their careers in HR. Managing talent remains critical to performing the CHRO job, say recruiters and researchers. But it’s just table stakes.

What Organizations Want

Stamford, Conn.-based Claudia Lacy Kelly, the North American leader of search firm Spencer Stuart’s HR practice, acknowledges that boards and CEOs expect more than ever from the CHRO. “The job is like walking across a picket fence barefooted,” she said.

Recruiters and researchers say the key attributes that organizations seek in a CHRO are:

  • A strong reputation.
  • Diversity of work experience.
  • Global experience.
  • Board exposure.
  • Experience in a major transformation.

Reputation trumps all other qualities, experts say. The CHRO often is charged with being the architect of the leadership team. He or she might be a top advisor to the chief executive and must be trusted to act with discretion, to show no favoritism and—when necessary—to facilitate the exit of underperforming leadership team members.

Said Dave Ulrich, a professor and researcher at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan: “The CEO is the owner of the culture and HR work, and the CHRO is the architect who builds the blueprint, so there has to be mutual respect and influence.”

That fit can be difficult to assess for outside CHRO candidates. It’s not uncommon for newly hired CEOs to bring in CHROs that they have worked with at one or more previous organizations. But in open-ended CHRO searches, “That chemistry is what organizations are trying to capture in interviews,” said Patrick M. Wright, a management professor and researcher at the University of South Carolina, based in Columbia.

Diversity of work experience is more than just knowledge of the major HR disciplines. A 2015 global survey by consulting firm Aon Hewitt found that more than half of responding CHROs were not career HR professionals.

“CEOs are looking for a businessperson who happens to have HR as their expertise,” Kelly said. Observed Neil Shastri, Aon Hewitt’s New York City-based leader for global insights and innovation: “When companies are looking to promote individuals internally, if you were a career HR person, it’s almost like a negative.”

Work in different parts of the business, in various industries and in geographically diverse regions are valued pieces of experience. Ellie Filler, a managing partner of search firm Korn Ferry who is based in Zurich and London, said CHRO candidates can benefit from time spent at companies at different stages of their development and from jobs that deal with complex products and challenges. She said the qualities sought in CHROs are similar in the U.S. and Europe.

Global experience is valued even in organizations that have not yet established offices or marketed products or services internationally. Mike Bergen, managing partner with search firm Allegis Partners in New York City, said many clients tell him that they want a CHRO “who has been in a big profit-and-loss role,” preferably in a global organization.

George Bongiorno, senior client partner for Korn Ferry in San Francisco, said a professional aspiring to become a CHRO should find a way to get global experience, even if it’s managing an international HR team from an office in the U.S. He suggested seeking overseas posts, whether for a few months or a couple of years. Completing such assignments “shows that you’re very agile and very adaptable to different environments.”

Board exposure can be difficult to come by, particularly in large companies where the board typically interacts with only a few senior leaders. Nevertheless, “It’s a biggie. It’s almost a must-have,” Bergen said.

Assigning would-be CHROs special projects for the board can help. “Talent and executive compensation specialties by their nature grant higher visibility to the board,” Wright said.

Raising the bar even further, “The importance of developing a relationship with the chairman is a big emerging trend,” Filler said.

For recruiters, “The first stage in the CHRO selection process is interviewing the board and the CEO to set the criteria,” Ulrich said. Among key questions to answer: “What will the business require from a good CHRO?”

Previous involvement in a major transformation is highly valued. HR or business unit reorganization, or experience with a merger or acquisition, makes a resume stand out. Technological skills are a big plus as well. “We’re seeing emphasis on quantifying the impact of HR,” Shastri said.

“There are a lot of candidates for CHRO jobs,” Shastri noted. But clients often tell him something like “I want a person who has compensation experience, who has worked abroad for several years and who has worked with a major transformation, such as tech or culture.” That narrows the field considerably.

Making a Superhero

While research shows that at least half of U.S. CHROs are selected from outside the organization, there are companies that want to grow their own talent. According to the 2015 report The Chief HR Officer Role from the Center for Executive Succession at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, “If we hope to increase the number of internal CHRO successors, we may have to explore innovative ways to get these successors visibility with the CEO and the board in a way that enables them to display their business acumen, strategic perspective, and ability to build trust.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.​

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