Could VP of HR Ever be the Stepping Stone to CEO?

Jessica Lee John Spence, Succession Planning

If people truly are our “most important asset” and HR is in charge of managing the company’s “human” resources, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the top HR position should merely be a stepping stone to the corner office? It makes perfect sense but why isn’t it happening more often? The only major example that comes to mind is Colleen Barrett. Ring a bell? She served for many years as VP of Administration and Champion of Corporate Culture at Southwest Airlines, eventually leading her to become their president and one of the 50 most powerful business women in America.

Three key reasons for why more chief HR officers aren’t becoming tomorrow’s CEO’s:

  1. Business leaders have not figured out this simple maxim: the success of your company is directly tied to the quality of the people you have on your team. Far too many companies give only lip service when it comes to making talent acquisition, growth and retention a major strategic thrust. Recruiting is reactive at best, world-class training is not a priority and corporate culture is seen as something soft and touchy-feely. Nothing could be further from the truth. Talent + Culture x Customer Focus = Sustainable Business Success.
  2. HR is not viewed as a strategic function within the organization. Again, dead wrong, but difficult to change this perception. It is only when the HR manager begins looking 3 to 5 years out and building a talent pipeline for the future needs of the organization, ensuring a steady stream of the highest quality candidates exactly when they’re needed, that the C-level folks will realize what a critical role HR is playing in the growth and success of the business.
  3. The only way to earn a seat at the table is to understand deeply how the business runs from the ground up. Being a connoisseur of talent is not enough. To call the shots, you have to understand how the game is played. If you are not up to speed on global economic trends, key marketing issues, competitive issues, essential business processes and able to fluently speak the language of business… accounting… you will not earn a seat anywhere at the table.

As Tom Friedman would say, the world is flat and becoming more so every day. We all compete in a global marketplace where distance is nonexistent and everyone is on the same…flat… playing field.

So, what sustainable competitive advantages are most businesses left with? The first is to create a culture of continuous innovation, where every single day, every single employee looks for ways to improve how they do their job for the overall success of the company. The second is to create a culture of extreme customer focus where loyal, engaged, highly satisfied employees focus all their efforts on creating loyal, engaged, highly satisfied customers. And if you agree that these two advantages are true, then the single most important driver of long-term organizational success is… talent. And it’s why I believe that the HR leader is truly the top “people” person in the organization. So, is there any reason in the world they shouldn’t be the top person in the entire organization?

Editors Note: John Spence is a leadership development guru and quite simply, he knocked my socks off when I saw him speak at the HR Florida conference a few months back. I’ve never seen a conference speaker so passionate and insightful – and I kid you not, it was love at first sight. I coerced him into writing this guest post for FOT because the man is brilliant. His latest book is Awesomely Simple and focuses on how to turn ideas into action. Words don’t do the man justice though – find him at a conference or hire him to come speak for you. For real.