New research from PricewaterhouseCoopers has revealed how the
make-up and background of top HR executives has changed over
recent years with gender, age, education levels and skill sets all
Who gets the top job? Changes in the attributes of human resource heads
and implications for the future surveyed the top HR role in the 100 largest US
companies in 2009, recording the attributes of the incumbents in those roles,
and then comparing those attributes to the individuals who held similar roles in
the 100 largest companies at the end of 1999.
HR chiefs have apparently gone against the grain in a corporate world
where concerns about glass ceilings that prohibit women from advancing are
wide-spread. The survey showed that since 1999 the percentage of women
holding the top HR position increased from 27 per cent to 42 per cent a
Furthermore, while top executives have on average been getting younger
over the past two decades, the average HR head was slightly older than the rest
of the boardroom in 1999 and remained so in 2009.
In terms of skills background, talent management was the most common
among the top HR officers. A quarter of them (25 per cent) had experience in
the talent management field, followed closely by compensation and benefits and
The biggest increases in experience were in employee surveys, arguably a
proxy for “HR metrics,” which was not a widely-used term in 1999. The biggest
fall-off was in the area of labour affairs, reflecting a decline in the role of unions.
Another surprising finding was in the area of education levels. While the
percentage of top HR executives who held at least a Bachelor’s degree rose, as
did the percentage with a Master’s degree, the average years of education held
by these executives actually declined. This is because a trend emerged of fewer
PhDs and lawyers holding the top HR position – reflecting a decline in the
importance of specialist fields, the report said.
It also revealed that the nature of the career path taking professionals to these
top HR jobs has changed. While it used to be more common for executives to come
into the top HR job from another function, the percentage that came from outside
HR in 2009 was only around 20 per cent - much less than a decade before.
For more on this story see the next issue of HR Leader magazine – Issue 199