HR Leader Development for an HR or Line Executive Role

Some HR leaders, especially those in the early or middle portion of their business careers, may also be interested in considering advancement into line management as well as HR management.  If the leader chooses to consider advancement in line management as part of their development planning, he/she may have to overcome some or all typical perceptions of HR in their interactions with line management people.



Unfortunately, it is fair to say that when a line executive position becomes available within most companies, few HR leaders are given serious consideration among the internal candidates for it.  This is primarily due to their lack of relevant work experience in line management.  However, it is also due to several perceptions that line managers and executives have regarding HR leaders, for whom they have little respect as a business peer.  Therefore, if an HR leader wants to be seriously considered for any line management opening, he or she must fully understand and respond to these perceptions in all their interactions of line management.

Here are some of the important perceptions.

  1. HR leaders are viewed as an HR person FIRST and as a business person a distant SECOND.
  2. HR leaders have little or no pragmatic understanding of the strategic, financial or operating aspects of the company’s business.
  3. HR leaders have little or no understanding of the company’s strategic, financial or operating business objectives for the current fiscal year.
  4. Due to their lack of these understandings, they are considered as theoretical or conceptual thinkers, rather than pragmatic business thinkers and doers.
  5. Many line managers and executives view HR primarily as an administrative function that operates by itself, far away from the significant challenges and risks of the business itself. Line management’s compensation and reputation are directly dependent upon their ability to achieve difficult business results in this uncertain and volatile business environment.  Conversely, HR management’s compensation and reputation are primarily risk-averse while being dependent upon its administrative excellence that is unencumbered by the hectic and risky operating side of the business – in stark contrast to all other functions that deal with it daily.
  6. HR leaders are overly concerned with their administrative duties, almost to the exclusion of trying to help the CEO and line management executives to achieve the company’s strategic, financial and operating business objectives for the current fiscal year and beyond. In fact, most line executives would be elated if HR would provide some innovative and pragmatic HR program or training and facilitative service to help them achieve these business objectives.
  7. HR’s leadership development programs, especially those for senior and upper management, deal almost exclusively with soft leadership skill development, rather including the hard skills that line executives value much more in a 75% hard/25% soft skills mix. Line executives would much prefer that the APPROPRIATE MIX of hard and soft skills be TAUGHT TOGETHER while applying them to the executive’s real-world business objectives, plans, challenges, and risks because that is the way they exist in their real business world.  Historically, HR leaders have tended to cover only the soft skills because they are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with the hard skills.
  8. Here are some examples of hard skills for senior and upper management.

a.  Functional Acumen – understanding various business functions (sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing, etc.) and sub-functions (for manufacturing, they are production, quality control, manufacturing engineering, inventory control, etc.), along with planning, controlling and leading major multi-functional and/or multi-divisional team efforts to achieve critical business results.

b.  Financial Acumen – understanding the company and division Income and Cash Flow Statements and Balance Sheet, sales volume and gross profit margins for major products, budget/profit planning, and performance.

c.  Fiscal Year Business Objectives – for the company, divisions, and key executives.

d.  Business Strategy – understanding the company and divisional strategic plans, major product/market development plans, financial plans, and contingency plans.

e.  Executive Skills – Board and top management interaction on key business issues, stock market analysis and analyst interaction, championing innovation and continuous improvement, consistently achieving profitable financial results and strategic growth, creating an effective workplace culture, leadership, and so on.

  1. HR leaders seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time and resources on the problems of lower and middle management where the problems are relatively simple and the solutions are relatively easy, at the expense of those faced by senior and upper management where the problems are much more complex and the solutions are complicated and far from easy to implement.


There are certain inherent factors that relate to any selection of a person to fill a top HR or line management position at the senior or upper management level.  Some of the key ones are listed below.

  1. First and foremost is the following HARD TRUTH: As long as investors and the market hold the Boards and top management of any private or public company accountable for achieving certain strategic, financial and operating business objectives over the short and long term, any viable candidate for a senior or upper line management position must first have the necessary hard skills that meet the requirements of the position.   Without those hard skills, job success will be very difficult to achieve.
  2. Such decisions are usually made by the CEO, line management executives and, in the case of important top management positions such as the CHRO, by a member of the Board of Directors; almost all of whom typically have a line and/or financial management background.
  3. All of the decision-makers noted above probably have had little experience in their own business careers working with a business-oriented HR executive in a significant and meaningful strategic or operational way. Therefore, the HR candidate must make it explicitly clear in an interview exactly how HR can help the CEO to achieve the company’s business objectives and strategies.
  4. HR success in any company is inexorably tied to the respect that the CEO and line executives have for the HR leader as a business person. In their eyes, such respect cannot simply be handed over to the person because of their job title.  Rather, the HR leader must be able to think and act as a business person at all times in an effort to earn that respect.
  5. As a general rule, the CEO and line executives will be looking for the HR leader to “chart their own path” to the function’s legitimacy as an equal business partner by directly connecting some of their HR programs, and training and facilitation services to the achievement of several company business objectives.

To facilitate upward career growth in either HR or line management, the HR leader should consider various guidelines in their development planning in order to achieve a successful outcome.

Such guidelines are outlined below for an HR or line management path, a line management only path and an HR management only path.


Jack Bucalo
Jack Bucalo
JACK has led the Global HR function for a Fortune 500 and 1000 international company and several other large international companies. With four years of line experience complementing his HR experience, he believes that the CHRO or HR Leader should play a more direct role in helping the CEO to achieve the company's business objectives and strategic goals, while effectively implementing its administrative duties. In doing so successfully, the CHRO or HR Leader can become an equal business partner with his/her line management peers while becoming more directly involved in the company's operational mainstream, rather than being just an administrative afterthought. As a pragmatic practitioner, Jack publishes detailed and actionable articles on a wide variety on critically-important HR issues on BIZCATALYST 360°. He is also on the advisory board for other web sites. Jack's over 20 years of executive-level HR experience for which he was responsible for company, executive and Board-related matters, form the basis for most of viewpoints.

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  1. Nicely balanced advice, Jack. I started my civilian career in retail. No one, on matter how HR qualified, could get into HR without starting on the sales floor. That lesson has stayed with me. My thought, HR MUST venture into operations at some point or risk becoming irrelevant.