7 Qualities and Experiences Needed to be a CHRO

The best way to move into your first CHRO role is to ensure you are performing at your highest level in your current role, says a new report from IIC Partners. The study lays of the top seven critical qualities and experiences needed for success in your first CHRO position.

October 18, 2023 – The most common questions that come from executives who aspire to move into their first chief human resources officer (CHRO) role involve what it takes to be a strong and viable candidate. IIC Partners’ people and culture practice group, with consultants collaborating across 40 offices worldwide and, has had the opportunity to interact with many HR executives.

Sally W. Stetson, co-founder and managing partner of Salveson Stetson Group (IIC Partners – Philadelphia), and Charlene Bergman, managing director and partner of B. Riley Farber (IIC Partners – Toronto), recently authored a report on the top seven critical qualities and experiences needed for success in your first CHRO role. “Every company has different perspectives and needs based on their business,” the IIC report said. “However, there are some critical competencies you must possess to be seriously considered for the top HR role at any organization.”

1. Emotional Intelligence.

First and foremost, you need to have outstanding interpersonal and communication skills, according to the report. “However, that is not all,” it said. “You must also be a great listener, and be trustworthy and authentic in your interactions with others.”

“Tomorrow’s most effective CHROs are those that take a chronic curiosity approach to engaging talent in the workplace,” said Chris Kirkpatrick, head of HR Canada, The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. “The most engaged workplaces are those driven by the employees themselves. Creating space and room to ask and learn from their talent will help inform a more relevant people agenda.”

2. Effective Leader.

The IIC report says leaders should ask themselves these questions. Do you attract, retain and develop a team effectively? Do other colleagues want to work with and for you? Are you seen as a mentor to others? In addition, are you viewed as an effective leader across the company with your peers? Do other members in the C-suite seek you out for advice and counsel?

 Sally Stetson brings more than two decades of experience as an executive search consultant. She has worked across diverse industries including life sciences and pharmaceutical, healthcare systems, manufacturing, telecommunications, non-profit, and professional services. Ms. Stetson also serves as practice leader for the firm’s human resources specialty practice.

“The most critical need is for the CHRO to have a connection with the CEO,” said Dave Nocek, senior vice president and CHRO of Solenis. “They will need to influence, provide feedback and be a trusted advisor. That relationship will be the foundation to being successful.”

3. Driver of Change.

The IIC report also explains that the head of HR typically is sought after to drive change across an organization; therefore, do you effectively communicate with others about the rationale for change and help influence others to get on the change bus? If you encounter resistance, do you know how to regroup and try to persuade others in a convincing manner why the change is critical for the organization? Are you persistent and positive in your approach?

Related: How to Become a Successful CHRO

“The most effective CHROs need to be relentless optimists,” Mr. Kirkpatrick said. “Today’s workplaces and adjacent markets are fraught with unprecedented social, economic and political challenges that require any head of people to approach their role from a no problems, only solutions perspective.”

4. Board Experience.

“Most likely, the head of HR will be engaged at the board level and be involved with the compensation committee of the board,” said Ms. Bergman. “Prior board experience is usually very helpful and often required. Executive presence and strong presentation skills are critical to connect with board members. An ability to engage with all stakeholders is necessary.”

5. Executive Compensation Expertise.

“Although the new CHRO doesn’t have to be an executive compensation expert, it is important to have a strong grounding in the basics to provide strategic direction in this area,” said Ms. Stetson. “Many times, you can count on your total rewards executive to support you, but you still should have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and how these pieces fit into a larger organizational picture and drive behavior.”

6. Strategic.

“It is important to have a broader view of the needs of the entire enterprise versus a division or department,” the IIC report said. “Will you have the capability of thinking and operating strategically to ensure you are aligned with the current and future needs of the business? At the same time, most HR executives still have to be open to rolling up their sleeves to get the work done. With the lean nature of organizations, this tends to be a necessity.”

With over 20 years in the search and recruitment industry, Ms. Bergman is a business partner and advisor, collaborating with organizations to develop strategic hiring plans. B. Riley Farber provides services across the areas of restructuring, financial, human capital, and consulting.

“It is critical that the CHRO will be able to get things done,” Mr. Nocek said. “They will need to balance the strategic/visionary along with executing and moving the ball forward to make things happen.”

7. Business Focus.

Think business first and human resources second. Understand the business, its trends and how you can utilize all of the necessary tools and levers to ensure the company is meeting or exceeding its expectations. Be intellectually curious about the business, ask thoughtful and insightful questions and understand what it takes for the business to thrive.

“A CHRO needs to make people decisions based upon the dynamics and needs of the business,” said Mr. Nocek. “Many times they may not be popular decisions but it is important to remove yourself from the emotional aspects of the employees to make the best choices for the business.”

Preparing for the CHRO Role

The IIC report notes that if you are seeking that top HR role but missing a few of these experiences, now is the time to expand your background in these areas:

  • Ask to get involved in an executive compensation project or take a course to better understand the issues.
  • Influence your current CHRO to allow you to join a board meeting or support a board committee project.
  • Join a non-profit board to gain exposure to board protocols.
  • Volunteer to lead change management programs and get involved with high-impact strategic initiatives.
  • Accept speaking engagements.

“All of these activities will be helpful in your professional development but will also broaden your connections and elevate your visibility with other leaders,” the IIC report said. “Finally, the best way to move into your first CHRO role is to ensure you are performing at your highest level in your current role. Your contributions will be recognized and, clearly, you’ll be on your way to being considered for your first CHRO role.”

Related: What CHROs Need to Know About DEI Moving Forward

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; and Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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