10 steps to be promoted from HR Director to CEO in Singapore

Singapore Business Review
Published: 25 Jan 13
By Ronald Lee, Managing Director, PrimeStaff Management Services

Go from back office to the boardroom with these tips. Unfortunately, the brutal truth is that HR people hardly ever make it to the top seat of an organisation.

But if you’ve got your sights set on being CEO, you’ll be happy to know that it’s not impossible.

You’ll just need to pull out all the stops and create strategic value in massive proportions.

Here’s how.


1. Get to know your CEO
First and foremost, you will need to delve deep into the psyche of your CEO. Discovering what makes him tick is the first step in starting your influence process.

You need to understand your CEO’s areas of focus in order to help him accomplish his business goals. These include growth projections and strategies for product innovation, sales, marketing and customer service.

Read his speeches, meeting agendas and reports, and you will also get a sense of the problems he is facing. Be sure to get to know your CEO’s gatekeeper – his personal assistant or secretary – so that you can be privy to any useful information that is not in the public domain.

You can then use this knowledge and strategise how you can add substantial value in your bid to help him achieve his goals.


2. Focus on profit, not process
Engineer your own paradigm shift of HR’s role from operational to strategic. This means caring about the company’s financial health and beefing up your financial vernacular.

Read the annual report and get intimate with terms like ‘bottom line’ (profit), ‘top line’ (revenue), ‘share price’, ‘profit margin’, etc. In order to be CEO, you will certainly need to demonstrate a sound understanding of business and financial fundamentals.


3. Quantify to qualify
Talk like a CEO – pepper all your conversations with dollars, numbers and data. Always quantify accomplishments in terms of measured output and specific return on investment.


4. Expect their expectations
It is imperative that you know what your CEO’s expectations of you are. Find out in quantifiable detail exactly what he wants and expects of you, and have him list these out in terms of priority. It helps to ask what he would like to see more or less of, with regard to your performance and results.


5. Position HR as a problem-solver, not pencil pusher
All too often, the HR department is regarded as an unexciting, administrative function. Change others’ perception of HR, especially those of your CEO and his senior management team.

Prove that you are not the sort of person who is paralysed by problems. Start by guarding your speech – use positive words and eliminate negativity from your conversations.

For example, instead of dwelling on why something can’t be done, focus instead on how to get it done. The goal is to show up HR as a centre for excellence; the place that is constantly developing new ideas, best practices and systems, and drawing the best out of its talent.

Demonstrate a spirit of agility and flexibility by creating a team of HR specialists who are experts at problem-solving and can act quickly in response to sudden crises.
You may want to go a step further and develop ‘what if’ scenarios and contingency plans in anticipation of future problems.


6. Be a cash cow, not cost-centre
HR has never been regarded as a profit-centre and probably will never be in the traditional sense. While it is true that the department does not bring in sales directly, you can certainly make a business case of the strategic value and impact that HR has on the company’s bottom line.

For starters, HR is responsible for recruiting the best and brightest talents out there, including the sales stars who drive the company’s growth.

You should also demonstrate a desire to help the company cut costs, such as acquiring technology to automate administrative processes and eliminate manual work.

This would also free up HR’s time to focus on more strategic items like developing effective employee engagement programmes that help to raise productivity (bring in more money!) and increase staff retention (spend less money on new hires!).

Ultimately, you want to show how your department can manage and motivate workers to turn in their best performance for the company.

Do this by volunteering to give results presentations to key managers, as well as getting HR economic results published in all important company-wide financial reports so that everyone can see the business impact of your work.


7. Be the breeding ground for top talent
Make your department the talent launch pad where the company’s best employees start and develop. Like in professional sports, everyone is impressed with the coach that can recruit and develop top talent.

So hire the best talent that will enable your department to do its best work, develop them faster and to a higher level than others, then create a talent pipeline and release them to the C-level offices.

This will position HR as the department that ‘star’ employees must pass through on their way to the top, and word will spread about how good you are at identifying and developing talent.


8. Collect customer and competitor intelligence
CEOs love their customers because they know that there would be no profit without them. So even if you’re in HR and not customer service, it’s important for you to demonstrate an appreciation of customers’ needs.

Be bold and venture outside your jurisdiction by offering ideas for product innovation, ways to generate sales and how to improve customer service.

Your CEO is also likely to be obsessed about what your company’s competitors are doing. Be proactive and find out what the market leaders are up to and share these with your CEO.

Being at the forefront of such competitor intelligence, especially sensitive or confidential information, will put you in good stead with your CEO – covering “blind spots” he may have will aid his strategic planning and earn you his respect.


9. Sell with zeal
We get it that if you loved to sell, you’d probably be in the sales or marketing department. And you’re in HR because of your passion for developing people.

But get this – almost everything in life is a sales transaction of sorts, from selling yourself as a job candidate to pitching the benefits of eating vegetables to your 5-year-old.
So hone your sales skills pronto and ace your sales – be it selling a job to top talent or selling your ideas to top management.


10. Be an HR star
Come across as an individual who is interesting, impressive and exciting by building your individual ‘brand’ on external platforms – get written about in the company newsletter or in media stories, demonstrate your thought leadership in opinion articles published in trade magazines, apply for industry awards, and develop ways to enhance employer branding so that your organisation will be recognised as a great place to work.

These serve to showcase the value you create in a very visible manner and will help you get noticed by your CEO and his high-level peers.

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