So near, yet so far

Few
HR executives are ever offered the top spot. SHRM’s president and CEO Helen
Drinan was. She recalls her experience

In
early 1991, the stock of my organisation, Bank of Boston, was trading at $3 per
share, perilously close to the price at which shares are delisted from the New
York Stock Exchange. What a devastating prospect that was for a proud
organisation in business for over 200 years! At the time, I was director of
compensation and benefits for the organisation, a very challenging role under the
financial circumstances. But the hidden benefit of that assignment was the
proximity it gave me to the key leaders of the organisation’s ultimate
turn-around – executive management and key members of the board of directors.

Because
financial decisions regarding employees were critical to the continuation of
Bank of Boston, I had the opportunity to work directly with these leaders, all
of whom either were or would become CEOs. And I learned great lessons:
leadership involves the exercise of wisdom and grace more than control and
power; people at the top of the organisation only succeed long term if people
beneath them see their values as true to the culture; and leading people
through good times and bad depends more on integrity than charisma.

By
1993, Bank of Boston had returned to health and I was fortunate enough to be
named executive vice president of HR for the corporation. This position gave me
an even closer opportunity to observe the work of the CEO, as my job evolved
into that of confidante and business partner. I have come to believe that few
other executive positions – if any at all – offer such a privileged tutorial on
the role of the CEO. Day in, day out, there is continuous exposure to the
challenges and joys of this highest level of leadership. And how intoxicating
it can be! I know more than one HR executive who has caught the leadership
fever in this role, exclaiming to all "I could do that!", even as the
challenges grow more diverse and complex.

But
how many senior HR practitioners will get that chance? Historically, few have
risen from the HR specialty to the CEO role; most have been so near that top
spot and yet so very far away. But I believe that will change dramatically in
the coming decade. For HR practitioners who have expertise in workforce
management issues; who have got to know the business well, perhaps even through
line experience; and who have shared the responsibility for general business
decisions, not just those in their field of technical specialty, I believe the
doors of executive leadership will begin to open. But it will require a strong
combination of expertise, experience and track record – just as it has for
generations of would-be CEOs – to stand in the company of legitimate contenders
for the top spot.

The
move from HR executive to CEO had great personal importance for me. When I left
my role as the senior HR executive at BankBoston Corporation due to its
combination into what is now Fleet Boston Corporation, I assumed I would
continue in a senior HR capacity, probably in financial services, for the
balance of my career.  Ironically, I was
pursuing such an opportunity when the CEO role at the Society for Human
Resource Management was offered to me. This career choice presented such a
classic dilemma: a role I had known and loved versus a role I had observed and
admired; security of the known versus risk of the unknown.

As
I considered the choice, I felt really drawn to the role, which had been so
near and yet so far away. I had the right profile for the job – HR expertise
and experience coupled with a track record of accomplishment in the field. I
had worked for a great corporation through prosperous and dangerous times. I
had benefited from the tutelage of a CEO who taught by example how to lead and
how to draw out excellence from the workforce. And I had a variety of hands-on
business experiences in both small and large for-profit and not-for-profit
entities.

Ultimately,
what convinced me to accept the CEO position at SHRM was the opportunity to
aspire to what great CEOs have been able to achieve: bringing an organisation
to heights of performance and contribution not yet seen. The fact that the HR
executive supports that goal, while the CEO can actually make it happen, is the
great differentiator.

We
all recognise that today’s CEOs are under enormous pressure to deliver results
quickly and consistently. There is little tolerance for error of any kind.
Those of us in HR who choose to compete for this kind of challenge need to be
prepared for that level of demand. But if we have already served effectively
under a capable CEO, we have an advantage over our competition: we have been so
near to the top that we can now make the leap to that spot which once seemed
out of reach.

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