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Jun 27, 2017

While many HR professionals dream of someday earning the big company CHRO job, few will achieve it. After all, there are only 500 companies in the Fortune 500 and 98 “unicorn firms” valued at $1 billion or more.

While any number of paths can lead to success (or not), rapid workplace changes are making many long-held assumptions obsolete. After years of working with many successful CHROs, we’ve identified trends and suggested responses to help HR professionals navigate their careers towards promotion, be it to manager or CHRO.

High-profile failures are putting HR on Page 1

HR news is no longer just for HR professionals. Failures of leadership, management and corporate culture dominate today’s business news. High-profile HR failures at public companies like Wells Fargo, large private companies like Uber and startups like Thinx are demonstrating to CEOs the risks inherent in not prioritizing workplace culture and in failing to establish HR workplace best practices early in a company’s lifecycle.

While large multi-national companies have for years maintained formal HR programs, we’re seeing an increasing number of startups and mid-size companies follow suit. More and more startup CEOs would rather build positive corporate cultures from the ground-up rather than having to right the ship and risk high-profile failure to change course.

HR is increasingly seen as strategic

Perceptions of HR and its role within companies have changed dramatically over the past few years, due in large part to both the increased visibility of HR failures as well as a hyper-competitive job market (especially in tech and finance) that requires savvy approaches to recruiting and benefits in order to attract and retain talent.

Whereas years ago CEOs typically expected little from HR and considered it to be mostly administrative, today more CEOs realize HR’s importance for attracting and retaining talent and for creating an environment in which that talent can flourish.

How to be a CHRO: Know the business cold

Given HR’s rise in stature, subject-matter excellence in areas like payroll, benefits, recruiting and performance management, while still necessary, are no longer enough for growing an HR career. Increasingly the trait that determines who gets promoted is a demonstrated, intimate knowledge of the business.

Current and future HR leaders learn which factors drive business outcomes and constantly seek new ways via process improvement or new technologies to contribute to them. They don’t just do their jobs: they constantly assess their roles and reinvent them. They constantly seek new ways to help the business — and not just within the HR function. They look for opportunities to partner with sales, product, marketing and other business functions to help them do their jobs better as well.

Current and future HR leaders are informed about their company’s business and the broader market landscape. They read company press releases and earnings reports, they attend (non-HR) business leader presentations, they read industry news, and they ask good questions that show both their knowledge of the business and their willingness to work hard and creatively to improve it.

Which path leads up?

Most CHROs move up both through the HR department and across it. This could mean spending time as an HR business partner, in a leadership and development role, or leading compensation and benefits.

Though it rarely happens, some executives move out of HR then return to it after experience elsewhere in the organization. These individuals are able to leverage the time spent in another role, typically in a general management position, as “proof” that they really understand the business and how it works.

Conversely, becoming a CHRO without a HR background can be very tough, as many HR “outsiders” do not easily understand the tools in their toolkit. While there are some high-profile counter-examples to this, it’s not the norm.

Small companies have HR leaders, too

When thinking about how to navigate your HR career, remember to consider company size and expected growth trajectory. Some professionals rise in HR by training in large companies and then gradually increasing their roles and responsibilities within the firm. Others achieve leadership status by joining high-growth startups in junior or mid-level roles, often focused at first on recruiting, and then expanding their roles as needed by the company.

While there’s no guaranteed path to the CHRO-suite, focusing on the business and considering roles across or outside the organization can help get you on the right track.