Once you’ve reached the top, don’t stop – an HR executive’s options are
limitless, By SheilaGibbons
You are the senior executive in charge of HR for a large organisation with
business interests in several countries. The company is doing well, a recent
merger has been completed and integration is better than expected, thanks in no
small part to your efforts. You have the right people in the right places and
your department runs like a well-oiled machine. Life is good.
But what comes next?
Sitting at the top of your company’s HR mountain is one thing – but there
are other peaks to climb for the savvy, motivated HR executive. There can be a
lot more to explore and experience, from consulting on industry-wide HR
initiatives to leadership positions in key business associations, from academic
and government advising to board service at your own company and others. If you
are interested, there’s no time like the present.
HR talent more attractive and more needed than ever
Corporate meltdowns at Enron, WorldCom and others, plus ethical lapses in
financial institutions that mingled the interests of stock traders and
investment bankers, sent shockwaves around the world, affecting investors,
customers and employees alike.
The urgency to restore confidence among these groups and secure the talent
to accomplish the recovery can best be managed by someone with long experience
in finding people to execute business strategy: the seasoned HR executive.
"When I read about these accounting scandals it hits me what a
significant role HR has in all of this," says F E (Pete) Peterson,
formerly senior vice-president of HR at Hewlett-Packard. "To a great
extent, we should be the conscience of the organisation. But I also think it is
becoming more commonly accepted by all executives that people and the
organisational environment in which they operate are your two primary,
long-term, sustainable sources of competitive advantage.
"They are the real differentiators between the most well-managed
companies and the rest of the pack. That alone would be a strong justification
for having HR representation on boards of directors and in other influential
sectors of society."
Bruce Carswell concurs that there are compelling reasons for today’s boards
to offer seats to HR executives. "The difference in corporations lately is
the people issues: structure, governance, ethics," says Carswell, formerly
senior vice-president of HR at GTE, where he also was a member of the company’s
board. "My guess is that now about 30 per cent of matters brought to the
board have a strong people component to them."
Clearly, HR executives should be exercising more influence in more realms
than before. To make that happen in today’s turbulent economic climate, there
are certain qualities the senior HR person must have.
A record of excellence in HR
First, show that you know how to administer and adapt HR best practices to
your organisation. "Really leading the HR function – being considered
excellent at what you do – is a prerequisite to being viewed as a strong
business partner and the possibility of ever going into a boardroom," says
Peterson, a director at e-learning company Syntrio and a former bank director.
"If you’re not developing your own people and you’re not viewed as a
strong leader by them, that’s a major breakdown. This is something that some HR
people forget about – they are so busy trying to lead change and hobnob with
top executives that their own function starts to break apart and not operate
You need to cultivate peers, the chief and the board, and external contacts,
but not at the expense of the basics.
Furthermore, there’s no question that the bar for HR fundamentals has been
raised and the top HR person has to rise with it. "In some cases, the senior
HR job scope requirements have outstripped some of the current incumbent
capabilities," says Cabot Advisory Group president and chief operating
officer Pam Farr, formerly senior vice-president of HR at Marriott Lodging,
Mariott International. "You have to have enormous stamina physically,
intellectually and emotionally to be successful these days. Your courage index
needs to be high since you must be willing to bet your job every day to uphold
the values of ethics, fair play and sound management practices."
"You have to be viewed as someone who really understands the company
and operates with ultimate integrity," Peterson adds.
You demonstrate integrity by "respecting confidentiality, by saying it
like it is, not the way the boss likes to hear it; by standing up to your
management when they are advocating something you don’t agree with and by being
willing to be thrown out of their offices, as I have, along the way," says
Douglas M Reid, senior vice-president of HR at PanAmSat, formerly with
Colgate-Palmolive and Xerox. "And you have to deliver on your
What you really need is guts, says Chuck Nielson, formerly vice-president of
HR at Texas Instruments. "The successful HR people I’ve worked with were
willing to take the risk of ownership and champion unpopular causes, issues and
changes. They were not always popular with their peers – they were more
concerned about convincing the organisation of why their ideas should prevail.
In that way, they added value to the organisation, much more than the people
who would make quick compromises to make sure they were always in with the
managers they worked for.
"These people created change. They created turbulence," Nielson
recalls. "If you looked down into the organisations they headed, there was
a real diversity of thought – they deliberately brought in people with
different perspectives. Their leadership truly differentiated their
organisation from the competition’s. They could be leaders anywhere."
"I do not believe there is any good substitute for line
experience," says Steve Hansen, former executive vice-president/director
of HR at Norwest/Wells Fargo. "It gives you a business perspective that is
extremely difficult to understand vicariously.
Rising HR ‘stars’ will want to get involved in major projects that influence
the direction and focus of the business: leading a merger, managing a
downsizing, directing a reorganisation, and so on. I venture to suggest that
the vast majority of former HR heads who are now serving on boards at some time
or another held a line position."
"I had a number of non-HR experiences before getting into HR,"
says Madelyn P Jennings, former senior vice-president of HR at Gannett. "I
was in marketing research, strategic planning, business planning, advertising
and public relations, and I relied heavily on those experiences for a broader
understanding of the business."
The demand in the last 10 years has been for HR leaders who have broader
backgrounds, Jennings says, and "line experience would certainly
help". Jennings served on the boards of Hanes prior to its acquisition by
Sara Lee, and Harte-Hanks before it became a private company.
"What worked for me was getting to work with customers, having
face-to-face meetings with them to understand what we were doing right from
their point of view and what we could do better to get an insight into how our
business was working," says Reid. "I would do that directly or by
travelling with sales people or service people. That puts you in a position to
offer recommendations on the business outside the HR arena."
Reid served on the board of directors of Xerox Canada in Toronto and Fuji
Xerox in Tokyo.
Peterson also endorses stepping outside HR to obtain experience in other
divisions and other countries. "I could have gained additional credibility
had I taken a role outside HR, and I think I could have added to my credibility
had I taken a role outside the US," he says.
Peterson adds that it would have been a "special opportunity to see through
the eyes of someone who is part of Hewlett-Packard in Europe or Asia", and
would have been excellent preparation for his eventual rise to the top HR post,
where the executive operates globally.
"But don’t take one of those jobs with the idea that you’re just
getting your ticket punched or your dance card signed," Peterson says.
"Only take one of those roles if you feel you can make a contribution and
Farr recommends "travelling to places where you feel the least
comfortable to test your adaptability. It helps you appreciate your
international co-workers and the company’s operating realities. For example, it
is one thing to make international pay policies from your headquarters office,
but it is quite another to go to regions where currency devaluations wreak
havoc on expatriate local pay and premiums. And you can create a textbook
crisis management policy, but it’s another thing altogether to go to a
politically destabilised region and face automatic weapons as you step off the
aeroplane." All of it, she says, builds strengths that your company and
other institutions will want to tap into.
Visibility on the outside
You should involve yourself in endeavours that will enable you to be viewed
as a broadly-gauged business executive first and a functional expert second,
Farr says. She offers as an example Rex Adams, formerly chief HR officer and
vice-president of administration at Mobil, who went on to head the Fuqua School
of Business at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and chair the board
of directors of the US’s Public Broadcasting Service.
That happens when you not only think big but involve yourself broadly,
enlarging your scope of influence at each step of your life and career, Farr
Carswell agrees. "I’m a prolific joiner and volunteer," he says.
"I joined a number of professional organisations because they had peers I
respected as their members, even if I didn’t know them. In a few of these
organisations, such as the Labor Policy Association (LPA) and the Business
Roundtable, I ended up as chair. That impressed our company chairman and added
to my credibility with people in our organisation."
Additionally, Carswell says, on behalf of the LPA he testified often before
the US Congress, getting to know senators, congressional representatives and
presidential cabinet officers along the way. "That gave me some relevancy
to talk to leaders in Washington about overall people issues," he says,
which led to appointments on the National Skills Standard Board and other national
commissions on business.
Importantly, Carswell’s seat on the GTE board positioned him to informally
advise outside directors on policies and issues confronting their own
organisations, multiplying the value of his participation.
Board service in the non-profit sector is another important way of enlarging
your sphere of influence and connecting with others looking to do the same. It
can be a stimulating, rewarding path into higher levels of public and business
leadership. "If you have an individual who was a board member who advised
on how to turn around a charity headed in the wrong direction, or who
participated in an executive search for that organisation; who has headed
community initiatives such as literacy, youth sports development or educational
advisory groups; who has found real stars to join them in raising funds for a
special project and getting to goal – and who had all the corporate credentials
on top of that – that person would be an ideal candidate for a board,
especially one that is low on that kind of experience," Jennings says.
Focusing on solutions
"The leadership team within the organisation and boards of directors
are not looking for problem-finders – they are probably aware of more problems
than they can ever solve," Peterson says. "I’ve seen too many HR
people make the mistake of becoming full-time organisational critics. They need
to recognise that what CEOs and directors want is advice from someone who can
prioritise problems and find and implement solutions."
"The best HR leaders find a way to coach, make tough decisions and find
the link between HR strategy and the bottom line – reducing turnover, for
example," Hansen says. "I know of one successful HR leader who took
the initiative to redefine part-time benefits in order to attract a viable
workforce and then stepped in to completely define the customer service
function for the corporation." Regarding technique: "They must have a
spine, but not whine," he says.
The bottom line for extending one’s influence in the community, in the corporation
and into the boardroom: Find a way to make a difference. Like a good investment
portfolio, be diversified. Let search firms with which you have worked and
other influentials know that you are willing to get involved with bigger and
better things. And when you do, deliver.
Strategies for extending your influence
– Safeguard your reputation. Be mindful of your character and
– Tap into existing relationships. For example, if you have
worked with executive recruiters who also do board searches, let it be known
you would be willing to serve at those organisations
– Use your listening skills in informal conversations to detect
opportunities to become involved in high-level projects in and outside your
– Speak knowledgeably about business matters. "You must
understand and be prepared to deal with the both the broad business and
specific industry issues that your organisation faces, not just HR
issues," Hansen says
– Avail yourself of feedback and coaching from those you trust
– Serve on professional and trade boards to give back to your
– Be open to opportunities in service to education and the
– Remember that an invitation to serve at higher levels has to
– Let others’ views limit your dreams and aspirations
– Think of yourself only as a functional expert. Rather, think
of yourself as an assistant general manager of your organisation
– Fail to take a stand when you sense that law, ethics or
integrity may be compromised by a pending business decision
– Be too obvious about your intent to expand your horizons.
When she was consulting on an executive search, Jennings recalled receiving a
resume from a very accomplished professional whose stated career objective was
"membership on a board". "You don’t do that," Jennings says
– Ever betray a trust
www.cabotgrp.com – The Cabot Advisory Group is a US-based
company of veteran senior HR executives from global organisations. Cabot
principals have direct experience designing and implementing creative,
practical solutions to today’s leading HR challenges
www.ccl.org – Center for
Frances Hesselbein, Hesselbein on
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Steve Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leaderships.
Judith M. Bardwick, Danger in the Comfort Zone – From Boardroom
to Mailroom: How To Break the Entitlement Habit That’s Killing American
Business. AMACOM, 1995
David Ulrich, Human Resource Champions. Harvard Business
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Sheila Gibbons is vice-president of
Communications Research Associates in Colton’s Point, Maryland, US.