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Be Like Mary Barra: How HR Leaders Can Become CEOs

As much as we want to believe the Mary Barra story says we can become CEOs, it’s only true if we’re brave enough to leave.

January 13, 2014
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Related Topics: Succession Planning, The Latest, Talent Management, Workplace Culture
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Mary Barra, GM

Mary Barra, seen here in January 2012, will become the next CEO of General Motors in January 2014. Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors.

By now, most of you are aware that a former human resources leader has transcended the HR space to become CEO of a Fortune 100 company. And for the uninitiated (click here for some descriptive text on Mary Barra), the former vice president of HR at General Motors Co. will become the automaker’s new CEO. 

With that promotion in mind, many in the HR space trumpeted the ascension of a former HR leader to a Fortune 100 CEO spot as proof positive that HR pros can be anything they want to be. And while the promotion of Barra as the leader of General Motors is great news for HR, caution on what it means is probably warranted. Just because you’re in HR doesn’t mean you can be CEO. In fact, you still probably need to get out of HR to become a CEO.

Need proof?  Let’s look at part of Barra’s background/profile as captured by Bloomberg Businessweek:

Before becoming CEO, Barra served “as executive vice president of global product development and global purchasing and supply chain at General Motors Co. Ms. Barra served as senior vice president of global product development at General Motors Co. since Feb. 1, 2011, and served as its chief of product development. … She began her career with General Motors in 1980 as a General Motors Institute (Kettering University) co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division. She has been director of general Dynamics Corp. since March 15, 2011. Ms. Barra serves on the Kettering University Board of Trustees and Inforum Center for Leadership Board of Directors. … Ms. Barra received a GM fellowship to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute (Kettering University). She holds an MBA in Business Administration from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990.”

What’s all that mean? If you're an HR leader with a dream, here are five things the Barra profile tells us you need to do to become CEO:

1. Get the hell out of HR soon. Let’s be clear: One look at the Barra profile tells you her HR experience was part of a power rotation to learn the business, not a defining tag on her résumé. That should tell you what has always been the reality: You need to rotate elsewhere to be enough of a player to become the CEO of a company of any size and scale.

2. Deep subject matter expertise in an area core to the business is desired. Barra is an engineer at heart, an area that’s obviously core to GM’s business. Your company also has a similar heartbeat. If you have an undergrad that matches that heartbeat, you could do HR, take a rotation elsewhere and become a player in the race to become the boss. If your educational background doesn’t fit, you have no chance. But you could find a company that provides a better match and values your non-HR undergrad.

3.  Depending on the company’s focus, you need to decide which rotational path is best. Most companies these days have cultures that are defined by product or by sales. If your company is product-focused and your educational background is a match, you take a non-HR rotation in that area. If your company is sales-focused, follow that path. A sales focus at your company also allows you to worry less about a lack of match in your educational background with the company’s core product or service as long as you’re willing to risk it all with a career in sales management.

4.  Top tier MBAs still rule. Barra is a Stanford MBA grad. The mail-order MBA isn’t going to cut it if you want to be a CEO of a big company. You need to go get the elite MBA.

5. Get the hell out of HR. I had to say it twice, because it’s that important. I know you love it, but if your goal is to be the CEO, you’re not going to get there from here.

Get to the rotational program and get out of HR if you want to be CEO. As much as we want to believe the Barra story says we can become CEOs, it’s only true if we’re brave enough to leave.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributor. He is also the founder of “The HR Capitalist” and “Fistful of Talent” blogs. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Dunn on Twitter at @kris_dunn.

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