Making CHROs into CEOs

An executive perspective: Jacqui Curtis FAHRI, Chief Operating Officer, Australian Taxation Office

Why certification is the key to making CHROs into CEOs

“In the hierarchy of organisations, it is rather unusual for senior HR professionals to be seen as obvious candidates for the top jobs. If you look at the career pathways of people who have historically been promoted to CEO in business, they nearly always come from the business and COO roles and are often taken up by CFOs or CIOs.

“That HR so often goes unconsidered is disappointing because in many ways we’re ideally positioned for seniority. We have the ability to look across the enterprise, and see challenges and opportunities that aren’t always apparent in a business function. That bird’s eye view enables us to think strategically, bring teams together and have a holistic, non-partisan view. It allows us to come up with fresh ideas and solutions and influence debates within the organisation.

“But, given this advantage of a ‘whole of organisation’ view, what is stopping the CHRO from being seen as a feeder role for COO or CEO?

“What I’ve found is that we often get stereotyped as ‘just being HR’ and while it is disappointing, the solution lies in the hands of our profession.

“The first step is expertise. Since moving into HR in my early 30s, I haven’t stopped studying. It’s incumbent on HR professionals to build a portfolio of skills, and I joined the Australian HR Institute because I think it is essential that HR is recognised in the same way as other professional streams. I encourage my team to do the same because it’s so important to work together to position HR as a critical enabler to the business.

“Secondly, it’s recognising that lack of confidence holds HR back. If you can say, I’m an expert in workforce planning or industrial relations, just as the legal department can declare its professional authority, you bring a level of credibility along with the credentials to the table. Certification will boost the confidence of the whole profession and HR needs to back itself a bit more, to have the courage to say, ‘I have something to add here’.

“I have told my own staff I wouldn’t be employing or promoting anyone into middle-management roles without HR credentials because otherwise it reinforces the view that it is acceptable not to have any expertise.

“Thirdly, we have to put ourselves on the same level as other professional streams. Can you imagine in finance or in a legal department putting someone in charge who didn’t have the experience or credentials needed to do the job? But in HR, we have tended to say: ‘It’s fine to put generalists in charge of our biggest organisational resource – our people.’

“Only recently I was discussing with someone how they were going to advise people their jobs were redundant. They said, ‘Oh, we get our HR lady in; she has those difficult conversations with people, as she is so good at doing it nicely.’

“I refuse to take on that role. I will guide a manager on how to do it, I will coach them, but I am not going to do it for them. It’s condescending and it sends the message that HR is just there to fix your people problem – and we are not here to do that. We are strategic business partners, here to build the capability of leaders and managers to manage their own people, just as they manage their own finances.

“Increasing the respect with which the HR profession is viewed in the outside world starts by building it from within. I truly believe that getting all HR professionals certified is the key to achieving that.”