Move over, CFOs—there’s new competition for the CEO title: CHROs
Briana van Strijp sits in her London home office with a plain white bookshelf holding three succulents behind her. The setting looks more like that of a virtual therapist than a CEO of a venture capital firm, and she’s smiling from the second she logs on to Zoom.
Van Strijp’s HR roots peek through with each pause she takes before answering a question and every reference she makes to “the people practice.” Her open demeanor is not that of your typical chief executive, nor is her résumé. She’s one of several HR executives who’ve made the recent leap into the CEO seat.
“If you had asked me many moons ago and probably a couple of years ago, is this what you see in your future? I would have said, ‘No, that wouldn’t happen,’” says van Strijp.
Companies are increasingly tapping HR executives for the corner office, a move almost unheard of even five years ago. Some newfangled leaders held traditional P&L roles before their CHRO posts, using their HR pit stop as a training ground on the way up the corporate ladder. But others have long burnished their corporate bona fides in people operations and are now finding their workforce know-how in great demand.
Van Strijp was named CEO of Anthemis company in September 2021, soon followed by Leslie Motter’s promotion from CHRO to president and CEO of Make-A-Wish Foundation in August 2022. Months later, and in one of the buzziest moves to hit the HR sect, Chanel tapped Leena Nair, Unilever’s former CHRO, as CEO in December.
The appointments aren’t wholly unprecedented. Mary Barra, General Motors’ CEO, notably held HR roles before her CEO ascension. But pandemic headwinds, shifting employee-employer power dynamics, economic volatility, and the growing expectations of stakeholder capitalism have made the leap from HR to the corner office more plausible.
“If you’re the board and you’re looking to transform [the company], you know that turnover is a problem, pay scales are rising, you’re losing the war for talent, and trying to become more digital and deal with an employee base that is becoming more like internal activists,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice. “It reinforces that this is the moment for HR to stand up and lead.”
The CHRO job description has lengthened over the years. What began as a compliance role—managing people and risk on behalf of companies—has morphed into a catch-all for people-related issues.
“The larger story is the increased recognition of the importance of talent as a way to compete,” says Patrick Wright, an HR and business strategy professor and the director of the Center for Executive Succession at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.
HR has also benefited from a dramatic rebranding in recent years. HR heads famously had a reputation for being seagulls, says Kaplan. “It was the idea that the CHRO would fly into the CEO’s office, drop a problem on their desk and fly away,” he says. “Now, CHROs are the ones solving the biggest problems.”
They’re also more readily viewed as business partners, integral to a company’s market placement and long-term growth. The Darla Moore School of Business surveys CHROs each year and asks leaders to identify the three deliverables CEOs want from them. “The answer is talent, talent, talent,” Wright says. “And it’s not just talent in general. It’s talent in the key positions that drive business success.”
It’s this recognized ability to identify key talent pools and where they’re needed that’s propelled HR leaders to the rarified CEO perch.
Kaplan likens HR heads’ new stature to that of chief finance officers, who have become more strategic business drivers over the last 20 years. CFOs have historically been perceived as obvious contenders for the CEO role thanks to their P&L oversight and contribution to financial performance and bottom-line growth.
But the growing CHRO-to-CEO pipeline signals that human capital has become one of the most important investments, and boards believe future success rests on talent and a winning culture.
“The head of HR is the carrier, the keeper, and the driver of culture,” Kaplan says. “So the message [boards are] sending is, ‘We want someone who is so wedded to our culture and is so focused on people, we believe they should be the next stage of the company.’”
A tale of two career paths
The road to CHRO has diverged with two paths: those who grew up in recruiting and people operations and the non-HR leader who pivoted from a more business-focused function to dabble in HR and pick up people management skills.
Van Strijp falls into the first camp. She started her career in Australia as an HR business partner, helping managers set their respective people strategies before moving to the financial services company Suncorp Group. There, she cultivated skills in organizational design.
“When you’re thinking about designing for an organization, or you’re thinking about designing for a business model, a lot of the skills are directly transferable,” she says. “Thinking about how you actively design strategy for an employee value proposition [translates] to how you think about designing strategy for a whole organization, a business model, an entire market value proposition.”
She landed at Anthemis in 2016 as an associate, helping oversee its portfolio companies’ digital transformation. One year in, she donned the CPO hat, a role that straddled her HR background and experience leading organizational change. In 2018, van Strijp assumed the COO role, in addition to her CPO title, and became the firm’s CEO in 2021.
“CHROs are particularly good at being strategic thinkers with an execution bias,” she says. “That’s a rare and hard-to-teach skill, but it’s something you develop deeply in the people practice.” Such traits are well-suited for the chief executive role or, for HR executives who want a feeder role to position themselves for the corner office, a COO role.
Leslie Motter, chief executive of Make-A-Wish, also cut her teeth in HR, rising through the ranks of CHRO, COO, and finally, CEO. Though the Prudential and American Express veteran has a master’s degree in organizational behavior, she points to her crisis management skills and agility as major factors in her career progression.
The pandemic afforded her the opportunity to flex those muscles. “It’s a great example of having to manage a crisis very quickly and be extremely agile,” she says.
Motter’s adherence to empathy-driven leadership also bucks the coarse old-school CEO persona, which is singularly focused on financial performance but has increasingly fallen out of favor.
“In decades past, it was much more acceptable to have a command-and-control style, and many times, that went unchallenged.” Motter says that’s no longer the case: “Boards are changing and looking for more than just results. They’re looking at the culture the CEO is creating and how engaged employees are. It’s not just the traits of the CEO that have changed, but those around them and what they expect.”
The modern CEO
Executive recruiters have had a front-row seat to the modern CEO’s evolution.
“The CEO of today looks different from how they came up into that role just five years ago,” says Sachi Vora, a partner at executive search company Heidrick & Struggles and a member of its CEO and board of directors practices. Though she’s seen a higher number of CFOs attain the coveted CEO role, she’s also observed the rise of leaders with product and technical insight and those with workforce innovation skills.
The uptick in CEOs who’ve spent time in HR isn’t surprising to her. “It makes sense given everything the world is going through today [and] the types of shifts companies are facing—whether it be how you get people back into the office, manage hybrid organizations, or deal with the number of succession projects going on.”
At the board level, Vora and her team see increased demand for directors with talent strategy backgrounds as companies grapple with embedding and maintaining corporate culture in remote and hybrid work structures.
An unlikely trend
Ironically, one of the most lauded aspects of the CHRO role could be the very thing that impedes its corner office momentum. CHROs have become ingrained in succession planning over the years and are often regarded as the most objective person in the boardroom. They’re usually responsible for giving business leaders tough feedback, and it’s part of what’s allowed them to succeed in this consigliere role.
“They’ve had to be that one person who can walk into the CEO’s office and tell the emperor when he has no clothes,” says Kaplan. “But if they’re vying to be CEO all of a sudden, that crosses a little bit of a line, and we haven’t yet figured that out.”
While some have made the leap, Kaplan notes that in many, if not most, of those instances, the CHROs weren’t vying for the top job. The board tapped them for the role, much like in the case of Motter.
“If this does become more of a trend, then we’re going to have to rethink how objective and political they can be in the CEO succession process,” he says.
But if recent history has shown us anything, corporate America craves more human-centric leaders, which might just become the natural progression after all.
“When I look back on the path that has led me to this moment in time,” says van Strijp, “there’s a coherent set of conditions, skills, experiences, strengths, and passions that I built and applied through the course of my work, which has organically led me to this moment.”
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.