Daddy, where do CEO’s come from?

Not HR, sweetie.  They don’t come from HR.

Today’s posting is of the “food for thought” variety, rather than a checklist of ways to up your talent game.  I have no clear answers.  What I do know from observing outside and inside is that there are certain career paths in our companies that can lead to the corner office.  Ours is not one of those paths.

Here is your thought experiment.  On Monday, your company’s CEO came in after having spent the weekend on a boat.  He’s had an epiphany that beach erosion on the eastern seaboard is going to significantly impact his two beach houses and the fishing he can do during his retirement, and he’s decided to devote his life to fix that problem.  His resignation is effective at the end of the month.  Oh, and your VP of HR had always meant to do some succession planning, but never quite got on the schedule.  No one is being “groomed” for the CEO’s job.

Who are the internal candidates your board is going to look at?  They will be:

  • P&L leaders of major business units
  • VP of Marketing
  • VP of Sales
  • VP of Operations/Logistics
  • Chief Financial Officer

And, if your board is looking at external candidates, they’ll be these people from other organizations (or, other CEO’s).

The VP of HR is not on the short list.  Neither is the VP of IT, for what it’s worth.  So, why?

Like I said, I don’t have a good answer to this.  On paper, HR should be uniquely suited to taking over a top spot in the business.  We know *everyone*, and we interact with every part of the organization in a way that sales and marketing don’t.  HR has exactly the integrated global view of the organization that you would want in the person getting ready to run the organization.

However, think about even that first bullet item.  Can HR people move into that Division VP slot when it comes open?

There are a number of possible reasons for this, and I hope wiser people than me will pontificate in the comments.  My only observation would be that in your own organization, it can only help your career if you think of yourself — and occasionally mention yourself — as a successor to the organizational leader that you support.

What does it take for HR to be a breeding ground for CEO’s?  Or, do we even want to be?

FOT Background Check

Steve Gifford
Steve Gifford, MBA, SPHR, is the Director of Human Resources for OEM America, a PEO of more than a hundred companies and more than two thousand employees. His company gives small businesses the buying power and HR expertise of a big company, but without the bureaucracy! In the past, he’s been the HR guy for marketing, manufacturing, retail, and government organizations. His first HR job was in the US Army during his second tour in Iraq, where every employee in his client group carried an automatic weapon. It helps him keep the problems of employees who show up to work late in perspective.


  1. Jer says:

    Great Talent Acquisition managers are more marketers. Maybe the path could be through recruitment marketing ……?


  2. Darren says:

    HR does not have a reputation for understanding the business and instead we have a reputation for developing processes that are not liked, poorly understood, and viewed as lacking value or business relevance. Often this is driven by HR Pros who know HR and develop good HR programs but don’t know the business they work for. There is a lot of HR still done out there for the good of HR. Until HR values understanding the business as much as knowing HR why should we be considered for the corner office by those we work with. HR works hard to get high quality talent for other groups but has a reputation for not getting that same quality for themselves – or not demanding the same performance as other groups do. In my opinion too many in HR spend time looking for a seat at the table when most HR pros (and our professional organizations) don’t even know what room the table is in. How often does a business leader assume an HR Pro has a similar background and education as they do? We should be striving for every business leader to believe that we know the business first and HR second. Until this is the expectation I don’t believe that HR will be the path to the corner office.

  3. Ummmm says:

    The path of HR to CEO is usually through the COO or CAO positions for grooming into the CEO role.

  4. Sunil says:

    Great point to start from- but what I think is missing here is the external perspective and the competency experience view, would you pick someone with years of experience doing what the job needs getting done or someone who knows people and understands the organization? Being able to manage people effectively may not be equal to managing business effectively. Though you raise a great point on getting some of that exposure lower down by taking over from a division head…

  5. Jason Paul says:

    Interesting article and POV. I often wondered the same thing, as my father has been in the HR space for 30+ yrs and at one point was the Chief People Officer for GE Plastics. I asked him if he would ever take a CEO position. He said that “HR is not a natural selection for CEO due to the perceptions about HR”…I never really understood his point until I got into HR myself. He added, “what’s the difference anyway? HR is the heartbeat of an organization and the C-suite looks to top HR guys for any major change.”

    Hmm, good point.

  6. BG says:

    Your last paragraph caught my eye—looking into your own organization and speaking up.
    I think this is huge–every organization uses/thinks of HR based on what they have at play. HR is valued in my small organization and the lead HR person has been asked to think about the CEO role from a succession planning perspective. It was interesting though because one VP “assumed” that the HR leader would not be interested in CEO. If HR wants it–then HR has to share that and act accordingly (i.e. really know the biz and be more than a “partner” in name).

  7. Ed Baldwin says:

    Here’s my experience.

    The path to the CEO typically runs through the core operations of the business. Engineering companies are led by engineers, law firms by lawyers, accounting firms by accountants, IT companies by tech savvy professionals. The admin/support leaders (sales, marketing, finance, HR) are only given consideration when they are core to the business in a similar way. Sales, margins and profits are driven by the core operations of the company and acumen in these areas are typically the most valued by boards responsible for selecting the CEO.

  8. TG says:

    Interesting question. In general, HR and IT-like functions are considered “support” funtions and cost-centers rather than strategic business leaders. To the world outside HR, we are process-driven and reactionary as a function; and for most HR departments, these views are correct. Talent Acquisition doesn’t start recruiting until someone has vacated a position or a new HC has been budgeted. Retention activities happen when retention becomes an issue. Education and training happens because the business complains about the workforce falling behind, but will be the first programs cut in difficult times. Workforce and succession planning happens after all the fires are put out and there is extra time and resources to devote to the idea. This sounds like a cynical view of the profession I love; but as someone else said, HR will have a seat at the big-boy table and be a CEO successor when we can show true strategic leadership and vision that adds value to the bottom-line and company direction – BEFORE we are asked to.

  9. Thought Leader says:

    Excellent topic of discussion and insightful comments. Based on my 20 years military experience, leaders are selected based on their drive and ability to do the job–as demonstrated by their actions and potential, but also by their previous roles. HR managers and young HR professionals don’t usually set out to be the CEO, thus, limiting themselves within the corporate structure. For example, they don’t usually obtain the requisite education (potential) or get involved in organizational operations (actions). As a combat support Soldier (CBRN) I always sought leadership positions and continued to prepare myself to be a First Sergeant (1SG) of any company available, so, after years of performing above expectations as a combat support squad leader, platoon sergeant, Drill SGT, training exercise planner and evaluator, and 1SG; I had the opportunity to take over a company slated for a combat occupational specialty. That is the rub: I was eager, prepared, and clearly able to do it. So I got the job, performed well (excellent according to my Soldiers) and retired satisfied for having envisioned an entire military career within my first 2 years then acting on that over the next 18 years.

    Moral of the story is: If you want to be CEO, then by all means do an operational assignment in the HR department…if you are an HR professional and want to be a CEO then you have to be a top five percenter as well as meet all the expectations and education of the typical CEO for your organization. Therein lies the real conflict–How can a person serve the operations of the organization and the organization’s talent simultaneously? It’s like serving God and mammon, at some point you will be forced to compromise your personal ethic.

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