Are Today’s HRs Better Equipped At Becoming New-Age CXOs?

Organisations should strive to find the right balance of internal and external talent to fill their CXO needs.


For decades the corporate HR department was perceived just as a back-office function, a cost center focused on mundane administrative tasks such as managing compensation and benefits plans. But very recently when Leena Nair was given the jump from a CHRO to a CEO, so do you think that Nair's stellar rise is a one-off, or does it indicate that organisations are now becoming increasingly open to the idea of CEOs from the HR domain? And are HR chiefs ready for the transition to the top job?

Dave Ulrich, a University of Michigan professor and a leading consultant on organisation and talent issues carried out this study in 2014 in association with Harvard Business review; where looking at several sets of data, he found surprising evidence of the increasing responsibility and potential of CHROs. The conclusion of his study was: except for the COO (whose role and responsibilities often overlap with CEO’s) the executive whose traits were most similar to those of the CEO was the CHRO. “This finding is very counter-intuitive—nobody would have predicted it,” said Ulrich.

UpSkilling To Fuilfill Internal CXO Hires

As technologies and business models continue their rapid evolution, companies are experiencing a step-change in the workforce skills they need to thrive and grow. Previous research has shown that as many as 375 million workers globally might have to change occupations in the next decade to meet companies’ needs and that automation could free employees to spend as much as 30 percent of their time on new work. Now, in a new McKinsey Global Survey on future workforce needs, nearly nine in ten executives and managers say their organizations either face skill gaps already or expect gaps to develop within the next five years.

Ralhan is of the view that most organizations should strive to find the right balance of internal and external talent to fill their CXO needs. Ideally, investing in emerging leaders takes time and effort but is much more sustainable in the long run. Systematic rotation, horizontal assignments and stretch goals are the most effective ways.

It’s always desirable to invest in people in order to raise the overall competence levels. By taking advantage of reskilling and upskilling, comapnies can fill some of those skills gaps created by reductions and empower employees to be more productive in their current roles or take on new responsibilities as needed.

Now, while it is important as a leader to deliver great performance by helping people thrive, the question arises that how can today's HRs be equipped and upskilled to perform such a role!

 “The most critical factors are ability to unlearn and relearn, as Alvin Toffler put it many years ago. Re-imagining the business models, in view of changing demography, digitalisation, emergence of large proportion of tech-savvy millennials, disruptions in the market, ability to anticipate and respond to the changes faster than competition are the critical success factors,” believes Prem Singh, President, Group HR, JK Organisation

Learnability is not about picking up a few skills, it’s about the mindset of being a life-long learner, very high levels of curiosity and agility in response. Quoting Brian Herbert “The capacity to learn is a gift, the ability to learn is a skill and the willingness to learn is a choice”

“An HR can get equipped for leadership roles by being deeply integrated with the business & taking on direct business goals. It's essential that HR be able to speak the language and get into the nuts & bolts. This will require long term thinking and planning, but is worth it, believes Sudeep Ralhan, CHRO, Upstox.

Road Ahead

As long as organisations can establish meritocracy as a philosophy in letter and spirit in both intent and action, it’s not too difficult to deal with dilemma. A healthy competition is always desirable so there is a stretch and a sense of going beyond what seems to a normal. Taking everyone along, even those holding a different view and those who have been peers until yesterday, is also an important leadership competency. 

Key decision criteria is merit - whether from internal pool or externally.

A healthy sense of competition can be balanced by an explicit inclusion of collaboration & transparency in leadership goals. This balance is essential to build the right culture as we upskill and promote internal leaders. 

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