Can CHROs become CEOs?

Three in four believe they can. HRD finds out what it takes to make the leap successfully

Can CHROs become CEOs?

Can CHROs become the company’s next CEO? In today’s quick pace of change, the confidence around answering with a resounding ‘yes’ is even stronger than before.

About three in four CHROs believe they can become a CEO in future, according to a study by TimesJobs.

In fact, one in three say that CHROs are emerging as business leaders and playing a vital role in executive leadership.

If their roles have yet to transform, close to half of CHROs are certain they will become a business leader in the next five years.

This long-awaited shift is undeniably catalysed by digitally disruptive times, which has put HR’s role front-and-centre as companies refocus their organisational strategies around employee experience.

Most HR have stopped playing backroom roles and transitioned into more strategic business positions, with some holding their own in a coveted ‘seat at the table’.

From CHRO to CEO

There are also lasting success stories. Mary Barra is one such case. Currently the chairperson and CEO of General Motors (GM), she spent most of her career with the multinational automotive giant.

Barra was vice president of global HR from 2009 to 2011. She was named CEO in January 2014 and elected chairman of the GM board of directors on January 2016.

Then there was Anne Mulcahny. She was formerly the chairperson and CEO of Xerox Corporation. Similar to Barra, she dedicated a large chunk of her career to Xerox.

Her leadership was exemplary and got her accolades like ‘CEO of the Year’ by the media. She retired as CEO and board director by 2010.

Prior to being top rank at Xerox, Mulcahny was vice president for HR from 1992 to 1995. According to reports, she never planned on becoming the CEO, but became the CEO and was selected on the board of directors in 2001.

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What it takes to be the next CEO

Those are just two stellar examples – there are probably many more out there. But from what we found out, it seems like there shouldn’t be any doubts about the CHRO’s capability to be a shoo-in for the top job.

An industry leader told HRD that “all C-level executives are suitable to take on the role of the CEO”.

READ MORE: How to build a succession plan

The most important prerequisite to be in the running? Leaders must be familiar and have a deep understanding of the business and all its departments – no exceptions. Background experience in other roles would thus give you a leg up for the top job.

Just like how the CHRO has overall purview of the many specialisations within human resources, the CEO needs to do the same, except on a larger scale across the entire corporation, understanding how to serve every stakeholder – from the customer, to employees, investors and the lot.

Korn Ferry made a comparison of next-generation CHROs with CEOs and it tracks “perfectly” for the succession.


  • Sets a strong HR mission statement that is strategic and measurable
  • Ensures that the CEO is aligned with HR’s mission statement and strategy
  • Ensures that the talent agenda addresses business needs, with sponsorship from the executive team and company leaders
  • Monitors results and modifies HR’s strategy and tactics


  • Establishes a clear mission statement for the company that sets a strategic tone and clear success metrics
  • Ensures that the board and executive team are aligned on the mission and business plan
  • Ensures the company’s mission and direction addresses client needs
  • Monitors results and modifies strategy and tactics

Another HR practitioner chimed in that the CHRO’s role has also gained importance “like never before” – where CHROs once reported to the COO or even the CFO, now it’s common to see the HR head report directly to the CEO and serve as a key adviser.

Of course, the road to the top starts with being a strong HR leader. But even then, the path towards being a CHRO may just be shorter than once thought. Sephora Southeast Asia and Pacific’s CHRO, Dylan Choong can vouch for that.

“Becoming a successful CHRO isn’t a straight path where you check off a list of experiences in order to become one, and so saying that you need to wait 10 or 15 years to be a CHRO is a fallacy,” Choong said.

“In this age of disruption, we might be surprised as to what it takes to be a successful CHRO.”

READ MORE: How to be a CHRO by 30

And as with all careers, no pathway is certain anymore. His fast-track experience of getting the top HR role was due to a certain degree of openness, coupled with strategic hard work. His learnings can be applied in any context – even for moving from CHRO to CEO.

“If you were to ask me, did I chase opportunities when they came along or did I have a deliberate career plan – I think it was a delicate balance of both,” he told HRD. “My career path became clearer to me over time and there were times when I sought out my next role.”

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