HomeLeadershipWhy are we not developing the next generation of CHRO?

Why are we not developing the next generation of CHRO?

  • 5 Min Read

Dr. Dieter Veldsman and Dr Marna van der Merwe discuss three actions to solve the dwindling pipeline of CHRO talent

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The past year has witnessed a remarkable transformation in the role of the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). As businesses increasingly rely on HR in a highly unpredictable and competitive landscape, CHROs have emerged as driving forces behind strategic discussions on sustainability, diversity, well-being, and the future of AI-driven workplaces. Many have hailed it as the “era of the CHRO” and recognized the CHRO as an integral part of a tripartite alliance, alongside the CFO and CEO, forming the inner sanctum of the C-suite.

While this shift is undoubtedly positive, it forces us to scrutinize the strength and depth of the CHRO talent pipeline. Have we successfully cultivated a robust and sustainable supply of future CHROs who can deliver impact in these areas?

Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no.

Where have all the CHROs gone?

An article published earlier this year asked, “Where have all the CHROs gone?” citing that senior HR talent is hard to find. Many departed the profession post-Covid, citing burnout or a desire to explore a diversified career path that offers more meaningful avenues. Others leveraged their adept handling of the pandemic to transition into CEO and other C-suite roles. Regardless of the reasons, the spotlight now shines intensely on CHRO succession and whether we have heeded our own counsel about building robust pipelines to safeguard the function’s sustainability.

Our research into HR careers (to be published in 2024) has revealed a unique tipping point within HR career paths, impacting mid-level HR professionals and succession pipelines. We have termed this the “mid-level HR Exodus” to refer to the high rate at which HR professionals exit the HR profession compared to other functions like marketing and finance.

Beyond personal reasons, the unique challenges that HR professionals at this level face are prompting this exodus. Many mid-level HR professionals grapple with boundaries and work-life integration and the emotional burden of these roles. With limited support available, they pursue alternative work arrangements or career changes. For many of these professionals, their entry into the profession is based on a desire to make an impact and contribute meaningfully. However, organizational politics, high levels of burnout, and a sense of disengagement due to the nature of their work leave these professionals disappointed and alienated. In some cases, the path to CHRO seems unattractive, unachievable, and unlikely.

This predicament prompts two critical questions.

Firstly, where will the CHROs of the future emerge from if we fail to nurture them within the profession? Secondly, given the elevated prominence and significance of the CHRO role, how can we proactively groom the next generation of CHROs?

We propose three actions:

Action 1: Elevate the Attractiveness of the CHRO Career Path

The CHRO role has been unjustly marginalized within the C-suite for far too long, often relegated to secondary status with limited opportunities for CEO succession. At times, it has been reduced to a mere symbolic gesture, and the true potential of the CHRO position as a strategic force in the C-suite remains unrecognized despite the changes mentioned earlier in this article.

It is imperative that we actively reshape this narrative, emphasizing the profound impact and invaluable contributions of the CHRO role to the C-suite. This transformation should begin at the grassroots level by dispelling the misconception that people are drawn to HR solely because they “enjoy working with people” or as an alternative to pursuing STEM-related careers. We must cultivate a compelling CHRO career path that not only attracts emerging professionals to HR but also motivates those already within the field to aspire to the CHRO position.

As a starting point, this implies the removal of perceived barriers that make the CHRO role unattractive to many. Our data highlights the perceptions that the CHRO role does not yield any authority within the C-suite, the politically loaded nature of the role, and the lack of autonomy within the role.

Action 2: Give CHRO Succession the Same Priority as Other Business Functions

HR succession can no longer be last on the succession agenda. In practical terms, this entails a comprehensive overhaul of HR succession planning, matching the level of investment and rigor devoted to other leadership roles within businesses. We must manage HR organizations with the same precision regarding succession planning, understanding the pipeline’s health, broadening the talent pool, and linking future HR leaders with growth opportunities.

We also need to give broader attention to new work arrangements within HR that combat the mid-level exodus mentioned earlier. The industry has also seen the rise of “Fractured CHRO” roles, providing individuals the opportunity to pursue other interests or giving businesses access to more experienced CHRO talent that they would not  able to afford otherwise. By adopting these new approaches, we can encourage more mid-level HR professionals to remain within the profession and further develop to this level.

Action 3: Accelerate Executive HR Professional Development

Developing a robust pipeline necessitates a reinvigorated focus on upskilling and reskilling for HR professionals. While calls for upskilling are not new, previous initiatives have faltered due to a lack of time, focus, interest, and the perennial sense of being too “busy” that often relegates development to a distant item on the to-do list.

We must do more to establish and build future CHRO cohorts that become holistic business leaders. The challenge is that this will need to happen across organizations and industries, and the role of societies and HR communities will become more critical. The CHRO leader profile extends beyond “traditional leadership development,” and we need institutions to step up to bring potential CHRO talent together beyond the boundaries of one organization.

The challenges our organizations encounter invariably revolve around how individuals engage, connect, and derive purpose from their work. We must have strong CHRO leaders who confidently steer their organizations into the future with responsibility and vision.

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