Breaking the Ceiling

blue sky between the building

I remember reading an interesting piece written by Dr. John Sullivan in early 2001 titled “Why VPs of HR never become CEOs?”. I was in my late 20s that time and some of the thoughts shared by Dr. Sullivan in that article not only had a great impact on my thinking but also created a desire in me to prove this hypothesis wrong. So I started looking for examples of successful HR leaders who could transition from HR to business leadership roles. While I could find few such people but by large I saw most HR professionals continuing in the function itself, moving from one role/company to another.

Interestingly, I came across lot of non-HR professionals, who came to HR, became successful and then moved to larger business roles. One such case was my CEO himself, who once had told me that when he was put in an HR leadership role before being appointed CEO, how he felt that his career would be finished after this. This was scary.

Four years down the line, I was sitting in my appraisal discussion with my CEO expressing my desire to take up a business leadership role. I presented a very strong case saying I have built a very strong HR brand for the company, have got a very capable second line who can take over from me and above all, have integrated HR programs with key business drivers where impact of our actions on the business results are clearly visible. I thought this should make me eligible for what I was asking for. The answer I got – “why do you want this? You are doing so well in your current job. You should enjoy your success. Moreover, this has never happened in this company before.” Getting this response from the CEO of one of the top MNCs of the world only reminded me of one sentence from Dr. Sullivan’s article – “Is the game stacked against HR people?” I was devastated.

Next two years were very tough. While I continued to excel on the HR front, I kept nagging my seniors in India and overseas every now and then to give me a business leadership role. What it resulted into – first an HR leadership role for Asia Pacific based out of Hong Kong and then another HR leadership role based out of our headquarters in Los Angeles. I refused both. And my seniors did not like it, especially the ones in the headquarters. Some of my friends also felt that by doing this I am not being politically correct and while it will for sure not give me a business leadership role, it may even put my HR job at risk. So be it – I said and continued with my efforts.

Finally, after two years, a deal was struck. Our Chief Technology Officer had resigned some time back and our experiment of succession planning with his second in command did not work. Being a technology driven organisation, this had created a big vacuum and had left us with lot of open ended problems. I went and offered my help to fix this. It was accepted but only on the condition that I will continue to handle my HR responsibilities. I agreed.

Being a graduate in economics and an MBA in HR, I was nowhere qualified to do a CTO’s job. However, I saw it as the only opportunity to break the ceiling and decided to jump into it. At the end of the day, I strongly believed that if I understand the business and its key drivers, I can always drive my technology team to focus on the right programs to make a difference. I saw my key challenge as to be able to stand in front of the highly qualified technology team and earn their respect. Fortunately, my earlier interventions for them through the HR route had created a very positive image of me and my leadership capabilities in front of them.

Next two years, I had a dream run. We were a technology business and I along with my technology team could create magic and do things which were unheard of in the earlier regime. Three more business functions got added to my portfolio during this period including a large business function in Singapore. However, HR continued to be a part of my responsibility, just that now I had a full-fledged HR Head reporting in to me. I was not too happy about it as my desire was to become a business leader in true sense and not just manage few more functions while being the HR head.

In a year’s time, against the advice of my well-wishers, I decided to completely move out of HR and started focusing on my business responsibilities including some very exciting global projects. I could only take up these projects because I decided to move out of HR and devote my time to them.

I had still not become the CEO… and the CEO’s chair was not empty. I was in my late 30s and was not ready to wait. With great difficulty, I could convince my superiors that it’s the right time for me to take a plunge into the world of entrepreneurship. The amazing experience of last five years in various business roles coupled with my HR expertise had given me the confidence that I could start on my own and build a company from scratch. It’s a different thing that I never thought it would lead me to become the founder of four companies in four years. SUCCESSWRKS came first, then Skillzot, then HRforYOU and now the fourth one – Chrozon.

The purpose of this article is not to focus on my personal journey. Moreover, the focus is on the method through which I could break the ceiling faced by HR professionals. How, we, the HR professionals, can break the mind-set that HR leaders can’t become CEOs. How we need to prepare ourselves to pitch for a business leadership role and be on an equal ground with any other business person. What qualities we need to build, what risks we need to take, what pains or challenges we will be required to face – a deep understanding of all this is required if one has the aspiration to become a business leader. There has to be a method, just a desire is not sufficient.

There is no natural law which says that HR professionals can’t become business leaders. However, even today, there are very few examples where HR professionals have successfully transitioned into business roles. The numbers are growing but still the critical mass is not sufficient to qualify this transition as a naturally accepted organisational process. The first barrier has to be broken at our own levels. While in normal cases, nurses don’t become doctors and mechanics don’t become engineers – this hypothesis is not valid and relatable to HR professionals. Let’s build this belief. If we operate only with past data, new discoveries will never take place. The time has come when all HR professionals should stop viewing their careers as leading only to the HR leadership roles. Let’s open the gates sideways. Let’s integrate our minds into the larger organisational process by being a part of it; irrespective of the fact whether we remain in HR or not. In the long run, this will automatically lead to breaking of the ceiling.

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