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Meet 5 HR Pros Who Became CEOs

Cornerstone Editors

In today's business environment, the people who make up a company are more important than ever. Gone are the days of interchangeable workers turning out widgets; the modern workplace is built on innovation and creativity, and getting the best ideas requires understanding how to attract, keep and work with the best talent.

Does that mean your CHRO, the go-to expert on people and talent, might be the best choice when selecting a new president or CEO for your company?

The answer is yes, according to a recent study by Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, and Ellie Filler, a senior client partner at executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry. Ulrich and Filler found that at top companies, CHROs are not only among the top three highest paid professions, just behind CEOs and COOs, but also they exhibit leadership qualities that significantly overlap with their CEOs.

While the results of the study are surprising, they're not entirely unprecedented. Although CHROs are not currently the first to come to mind when organizations look to hire their next CEO, there are several examples of successful leaders who got their start in talent management.

Here, five high-powered corporate CEOs and Presidents who came up through the HR department.

Lisa M. Weber

President of: MetLife (2004-2010)

How She Got There: Weber spent a decade working in human resources, starting in 1994 as senior vice president and associate director of human resources at brokerage firm PaineWebber before moving to MetLife as executive vice president and head of human resources in 1998. In 2004, she was tapped as president of individual business at MetLife.

What She Learned: "What is important is that you demonstrate that you can learn the business regardless of whether you're in the business. Figure out how what you do every day connects to the bigger picture. If you do HR for HR's sake, you'll continue to keep working on those file cabinets." (Business 360 Blog, Forté Foundation)

Photo: Forbes

Mary Barra

CEO of: General Motors (2014-Present)

How She Got There: Barra spent most of her adult life working at GM, starting with an engineering internship at a manufacturing plant. She was vice president of global human resources from 2009 to 2011 and was named CEO in January 2014.

What She Learned: "I try to create an environment where people feel they [can] voice their concerns and that we can get the best ideas on the table and then make the right decision. But at the end of the day, when the decision has to be made, if we don't have complete unanimity, I have no qualms about making it. But I want that tension in a constructive way to make sure we evaluate things from every angle." (LA Times)

Photo: General Motors

Nigel Travis

CEO of: Dunkin' Brands Group (2009-Present)

How He Got There: Nigel Travis became the head of HR for Burger King when it was owned by Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo), and after two years became the managing director of EMEA. 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 Dunkin' Brands Group.

What He Learned: "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)

Photo: QSR Magazine

Anne Mulcahy

CEO of: Xerox (2001-2009)

How She Got There: In 1976, Mulcahy started her career at Xerox as a sales representative, working her way up through the sales department. From 1992 to 1995, she worked as vice president for human resources, and in 2001, the board of directors named her CEO, a position she held until 2009.

What She Learned: "When I became CEO, I spent the first 90 days on planes traveling to various offices and listening to anyone who had a perspective on what was wrong with the company. I think if you spend as much time listening as talking, that's time well spent." (Insights by Stanford Business)

Photo: Creative Commons

Bernard Fontana

CEO of: Areva (2015)

How He Got There: Fontana worked as the CHRO of ArcelorMittal, a mining and steelmaking company, for three years and then became CEO of Aperam, ArcelorMittal's stainless steel division. He transitioned to CEO of Swiss cement company Holcim in 2012. As of September 2015, he is the new CEO of Areva, a France-based nuclear and renewable energy company.

What He Learned: "The ultimate responsibility of CEOs is to make sure that what they initiate will continue and that they develop the men and women who will carry on the work. So for me, it's very logical to have former CHROs as CEOs, because they have experience developing people." (Harvard Business Review)

Photo: LinkedIn

Header image: Creative Commons

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