From HR leader to CEO: HR experts share top tips to help you make the leap

From HR leader to CEO: HR experts share top tips to help you make the leap

HR leaders, have you considered stepping into the role of CEO?

The path may not be well trodden yet, but HR leaders make great business leaders.


Because HR leaders know their people better than anyone else in the business.

In fact, more than 90% of HR leaders, CEOs and CFOs believe they have what it takes.

We believe HR leaders are perfectly positioned to become business leaders. So, we spoke to a range of experts to get the inside track on how, in our exclusive guide, From HR leader to CEO: How HR leaders can make the leap.

In this article, we highlight their five top tips.

Here’s what we cover:

1. Own your current HR space

More than half of the C-suite say HR today isn’t playing a leading role in operational excellence (62%), skilling and upskilling (55%) and company culture (54%)—areas that traditionally sit in HR’s wheelhouse.

This is a problem because business leaders aren’t seeing the value HR brings across all these areas.

So how can HR leaders even hope to make the jump to CEO?

“Be a business person that specialises in HR, rather than just being an HR guru,” advises Ben Willis, partner in People Advisory Services at EY.

Think about the business strategies first and then how HR can drive them.

“You need to make the business see that the way we treat our employees is not just about the retention of staff, it’s about creating an environment so that people perform at their best,” says Gethin Nadin, psychologist, HR author, and chief innovation officer at Benefex.

Both HR leaders and C-suite leaders agree that talent management is the top priority for business, but while more than 20% of business leaders prioritise financial growth, only 13% of HR leaders do.

A mind shift in HR is needed here – it’s people that drive the bottom line – hence financial growth is a direct result of HR, not a biproduct of it.

In order to make the leap, it’s vital HR leaders are aligned to the same priorities as the C-suite and are seen as drivers of these priorities within the organisation.

2. Find yourself a great mentor

While 76% of people recognise that mentors are important to their development, just 37% of people have one.

A good mentor is vital to tap into advice and support that might not always be available to HR leaders in their day-to-day roles.

Ben Brooks, founder and CEO at Pilot, says: “The first thing is to state your ambitions.

“Don’t make it a secret if [becoming CEO] is an interest. Solicit feedback about your gaps or how others would want to see you grow.”

So, first thing’s first, find yourself a mentor. They can be within or outside of your business.

Have a set of defined goals and targets for yourself that you want to solicit their help with.

Remember, mentors are often busy people, running their own businesses (or working within them), so don’t give them a load of paperwork to sift through but rather succinct goals and ambitions.

At first it may seem like they are doing the lion’s share of the work in offloading their wisdom to you, but eventually the relationship will equalise.

Be prepared, cooperative and collaborative, have regular check-ins with them to monitor your progress and hold yourself accountable.

Finally, once you’ve ticked off those goals, come up with new targets together.

“HR leaders must be really well connected with business thinkers, using their networks to develop their connections and learning,” says Angela O’Connor, CEO and founder at The HR Lounge, if they really want to take the next step to CEO.

3. Develop your influence

More than 90% of C-suite executives and HR believe a major challenge facing HR teams’ success is the perceived value of their worth in the organisation.

Despite HR’s herculean efforts in the past few years navigating their people through the pandemic and post-pandemic world of work, they still have some way to go in convincing their own organisations of their value.

Frustratingly, 63% of C-suite leaders admit to still seeing HR’s role as administrative.

“The days when HR could sit in a little office and dish out tea, biscuits, sympathy and a box of tissues are long gone,” says Jo Land, group CEO at Avenues.

“You have to be seen in the business and you have to be credible with the rest of the business, because no one will take you seriously as the CEO if you haven’t got the business nous.”

Show your ability to flex, change and grow.

Testing and experimenting in HR will help you to step away from the status quo, so you can show how you’re innovating not just in your own department but across the whole business.

Become cross-functional.

It can be difficult to break the perception that HR people can only do HR, so demonstrate your abilities by working on projects outside of HR, whether it’s:

  • Opening new offices in new territories
  • Implementing new software and IT systems
  • Mergers and acquisitions.

“Gain broader experience beyond HR,” advises Ann Pickering, a strategic adviser and coach to senior executives, and former CPO and chief of staff at O2.

“A move into another commercial area of the company is always helpful, or perhaps taking on a dual role.”

If you’re going to build your personal brand, you need to demonstrate that you have the skills to be a CEO.

As an HR and People leader, you’re fully capable, but you may need to brush up on a few things.

For many HR people, their Achilles heel is the financials, so make the effort to learn new things, talk to the experts internally and externally, or even take a business course.

4. Focus on the numbers

While HR leaders are becoming more comfortable with HR analytics, to make the leap to CEO, they need to go beyond just the impact on people.

They need to transfer those skills and leverage other data and analytics tools to drive decisions that not only work for employees but takes the business in a profitable direction, too.

Learn to ask the right questions to find out what’s impacting your organisation.

Speak to your current CEO and find out what’s keeping them up at night.

You can then start looking at the data you have at your fingertips to see how you can make a start on improving these challenges from a people perspective, working with others in the C-suite to action them.

“It’s absolutely vital that HR people move from the soft stuff to understanding the harder stuff—which is the data,” explains Oliver Anderson, former CEO at 10x Psychology.

The best way to fully understand the data is to collaborate with other departments in the business. Pool together your resources and skills to analyse the data in a meaningful way.

Don’t just look at it from HR’s perspective but through the lens of the entire business to provide solutions that align with the overall business goals.

“HR skills alone aren’t enough to make someone a great CEO,” says Ben Brooks at Pilot.

“T-shaped leaders need to be as broad as they are deep, knowing not just HR but finance, strategy, operations, risk, technology, sales, marketing, and more.”

5. Become even more commercially astute

To become a CEO, you need to understand your organisation’s business goals and strategy from all perspectives.

And you need to know how to talk the talk.

Ben Willis at EY says: “Convey and project an argument using language that will resonate.

“Language that resonates with the CEO might need to change when you go and talk to the CFO.

“And you might need to change it again when you talk to the CMO.

“Think: How do I get their attention quickly? And where do I want to get to in terms of my objectives?”

Final thoughts

So, to sum up, if you want to progress from your role as an HR leader to a CEO, you need to do the following:

  • Think like a business leader
  • Be prominent at leadership meetings and take a leading role in priorities beyond HR
  • Understand the financials
  • Speak the right language (the language of business not HR)
  • Be commercially astute.

Combine this with your HR people skills, knowledge of people management and analytics, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a great CEO.