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A much quoted Workforce Management article, HR 2018 Future View, from 2008, famously predicted that in ten years time “An HR executive will become CEO of a Fortune 100 firm”. What do you think? Did the prediction come true?

Actually, it has never been a typical career path, still the prophecy came to light. Albeit, it might be important for us to underline at the beginning of this blog post that for HR executives to reach the top of the top has been a pretty unique pattern. Also, in terms of the corporate landscape it is worth mentioning that HR has always been considered to be a “backwater area” with lots of administrative and repetitive tasks to attend to; a label that held HR hostage for decades and against which the tide has recently started to turn.

By today, successful companies have all understood that for them to become cutting edge entities they need to be able to stay innovative, creative and learning organisations. In parallel, twenty-first century leaders realized that getting the most innovative and fresh ideas require them finding out how to work with the best talents available on the market. What’s more, board members are more and more leaning towards engaging executives with HR backgrounds as pressing topics, such as talent retention and attraction are growing challenges.

Indeed, the “art of HR” over the last decades has started to slowly but surely unfold with its go-getters and thought leaders (Josh Bersin, Dave Ulrich, Meghan M. Biro etc.) driving innovation, research and global conversation. Thanks to these developments, and to the explosion of the internet and social media platforms, by now the infamous backwater role of human resource management has clearly turned to dust. Present-day HR professionals do not (or should not) bottleneck organisational progress, instead their function is to drive business performance and support CEOs as change agents and guardians of human capital development. Where does this development take us?


The “art of #HR” has started to unfold with its go-getters and thought leaders! Click To Tweet


Its growing influence and ability to benefit from important developments have taken the new generation of HR professionals from the lower rank positions, which has defined HR for years, to the starting blocks turning them into optimal runners for senior VP, president, COO or CEO positions. There are a growing numbers of examples of outstanding executives who started their career within the walls of HR. Here, we would like to introduce to you 6 dynamic leaders who, in their pursuit to becoming executives, climbed the HR ladder first.


Let us introduce: 6 dynamic leaders who climbed the #HR ladder first! Click To Tweet


Margret Suckale – former Executive Board Member and Global Head of HR of BASF

Let us start our selection with Margret Suckale, one of the headliners of the Zukunft Personal 2017, who served on the Boards of no less important companies than the German national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, or BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world. Ms. Suckale’s leadership experience stretches over 30 years, from which she spent a considerable amount of time in HR, we are eagerly looking forward to listening to her insights at the 3-day conference at the Zukunft Personal, at which she will be sharing from her vast knowledge through the Future Talk: Politics meet Practice.

Laszlo Bock, CEO of Humu, former CHRO at Google

Laszlo Bock is a real HR game-changer who took the human resource management landscape by storm in 2015 with his book “Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google to Transform How You Live and Lead”. Bock is the Former Senior Vice President of People Operations of Google, one of the most recognizable household names of the world. While at Google, he transformed the hiring process from one that was based on maths puzzles to a state of the art recruitment process, which was aligned to the company culture, which he also helped to develop, by focusing much more on the employee experience. He has recently, in May 2017 departed on his own adventure by co-founding humu, an HR think-tank. His career pattern is something unique and projects the arrival of the new generation of HR managers who will strive for self-expression, innovation and freedom.

Bernard Fontana, CEO of AREVA, former CHRO of ArcelorMittal

Chemical engineer by training Mr Fontana has served as CEO of Holcim, a Swiss-based global construction company, and at Aperam, a steel production company. Earlier in his career he worked for three years as Chief Human Resource Officer at ArcelorMittal, a 320 000 strong global mining and steelmaking company. In a recent interview with Sfen, Fontana has referred to his appreciation towards the human dimension which he has developed early in his career. As CHRO he often had to deal with situations in which people with recognized qualifications found themselves in a difficult transformational environment. His conclusion was always the same: commitment is decisive for solving problems. And, in arduous situations, one needs to stay cool. Interestingly, he has never planned to become involved in HR but followed the advice of his former CEO who proposed to him to get engaged in the area as it will give him experience which he would find useful in becoming a future executive. Being the top manager of the biggest nuclear corporation in France, to say the least, that advice has really paid off.

Lisa M. Weber – Executive Advisor of Deloitte, former Head of Human Resources and President of MetLife

Nobody really knows which HR manager became the first CEO of a Forbes 100 company, but if we were about to bet we would put our chips to Lisa M. Weber who has been making it to the 100 Most Powerful Women list for many years now. Before becoming one of the most iconic Presidents of MetLife, a global provider of insurance and employee benefit programs, Weber spent a considerable amount of time in HR, starting in 1994 as Associate Director and Senior Vice President of HR at PaineWebber. Before moving into the top position of MetLife she was in charge of the company’s HR policies where she delivered results, especially through the revamping of the organisation’s recruiting and customer service practices. Since 2014 she has been supporting the work of Deloitte as Talent Game Changer.

Mary T. Barra – Chairman and CEO of General Motors, former Global HR Vice President at General Motors

With more than 600.000 LinkedIn and 30.000 Twitter followers one can be sure that Mary Barra, the first female CEO and Chairman who has ever served a major-global automaker company, is an attention-worthy public figure. Barra basically has spent her entire adult life working at General Motors where she started off as an intern in 1980. Through her GM career she went through numerous departments from internal communication to the executive assistant position, from manufacturing planning to the plant manager job. Obviously, HR was no exception. In a period when General Motors was just getting out of a bankruptcy not many of us would have traded roles with Barra as she took over the global management of the company’s HR policies. Hesitantly at first, she decided to take up, as she has always done in her career, the challenge and later embraced the role. “If we engage people we are going to get a better result” – a philosophy that helped her, and General Motors, get out of the financially troubled period.

Nigel Travis – CEO of: Dunkin’ Brands Group, former Senior Vice President at Burger King

Nigel Travis was working for another global household name, Burger King, and it was after 22 years in HR, that his former boss told him, “You need to run something” putting Travis in charge of Burger King’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He went on to become president and CEO of Papa John’s International, Inc. from 2005 to 2008. In 2009, he became the CEO of the Dunkin’ Brands Group. In a recent Forbes article, the East London Native refreshingly admitted that “I ran Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Burger King. At the time I didn’t know one end of a balance sheet from another. But my people skills got me through. The lesson there was, don’t be afraid to say what you don’t know and don’t be frightened to be ignorant about something.” (Forbes)

It is not unusual for Senior Executives to have additional responsibilities in human resources, and one such example is Samuel R. Allen, the CEO of John Deere, since 2010. It is no small feat leading this 180 years old company, and one of the keys to its success is Mr. Allen also prioritising recruiting, development and retention policies, aimed at forging a knowledgeable and skillful workforce.

So, here you are, our top picks for outstanding, and upcoming, CEOs with solid HR background. Who is missing from the list? Drop a comment, and let us know.

Have we convinced you, that HR departments can indeed be great points of departures for senior executive roles? What is even more exciting than reading up on the success stories of CEOs of iconic brands who have made it to the corner office, is to predict which rising HR star will make it to senior leadership roles and bring this inherent belief with them, that investing in people, and creating great working environments makes or breaks a company.

We are placing our bets on Lisa Bettinger Buckingham, currently HR leader at Lincoln Financial Group, on Hollie Delaney, the Head of People Operation at Zappos, on Tony Galbato, who is the CHRO at Amazon, definitely watching out for Claude Silver, the Chief Heart Officer at VanyerMedia, and Gary Kildare (Chief HR Officer at IBM).


About the author:

Zoltan Vadkerti_Employee ExperienceZoltan Vadkerti is a work-life expert, blogger and co-founder of the WorkLife HUB. He studied economics in both the Netherlands and Hungary before he moved to Brussels to becoming a lobbyist on EU social and employment policies. That experience, and many others, led him to an interest in the organisation of work and specifically on the quality of work and work-life integration.


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