HR professionals make the best CEOs

The CEO Genome Project is a comprehensive research study conducted by ghSMART, a leadership advisory firm, to identify the key characteristics of a successful CEO.

THE role of the chief executive officer (CEO) has evolved from a mere figurehead to a strategic leader with a diverse range of skills and expertise.

While traditional CEO profiles often emphasised financial acumen and operational prowess, there is a growing recognition that human capital management (HCM) skills are becoming increasingly essential for effective leadership.

Sadly, though, in Zimbabwe, you find more CEOs with financial backgrounds than in any other field. There is no evidence so far that shows that CEOs with financial backgrounds far better than other professionals.

So why would company boards keep hiring finance people as CEOs? When you look at the Zimbabwean corporate landscape, you notice that most boards also tend to have more finance people.

One head start for finance professionals is that they sit on boards as substantive board members, while all other professions go to the board by invitation.

That should not be a cause for concern for other professions and human resource (HR) as long as they possess the necessary skills to rise to the apex of the organisation.

The CEO Genome Project is a comprehensive research study conducted by ghSMART, a leadership advisory firm, to identify the key characteristics of a successful CEO.

Based on an analysis of over 2600 leaders, including 17 000 leadership assessments, 13 000 hours of interviews, and two decades of advising CEOs and executive boards, the study debunks common myths about CEO success.

The project unveiled four fundamental behaviours that consistently emerged among these high-performing leaders: decisiveness, reliability, adaptability, and the ability to engage for impact.

Notably, the study challenged conventional wisdom by revealing that charisma, confidence, and pedigree hold minimal influence on CEO success.

These four behaviours, collectively known as the CEO Genome, are not innate qualities but rather learnable and develop-able skills. By understanding and cultivating these behaviours, individuals can increase their chances of achieving success in leadership roles.

The CEO Genome Project provides valuable insights for aspiring CEOs, organisations seeking to identify and develop top talent, and anyone interested in the science of leadership.

As evidenced by the most comprehensive study to date on CEO success, the competencies required to excel in this role are not innate but rather learnable skills that individuals from any professional background, including HR, can acquire.

This ground-breaking research demonstrates that individuals can increase their chances of achieving leadership success by understanding and cultivating the four key behaviours that distinguish high-performing CEOs: decisiveness, delegation, adaptability, and relatability.

This realisation should empower organisations to broaden their talent pool beyond traditional leadership archetypes and invest in developing the necessary skills within their existing workforce.

HR , transition to CEO role

HR professionals, with their deep understanding of organisational behaviour, employee engagement, and talent development, are uniquely positioned to assume the CEO mantle.

Their experience in fostering a positive and productive work environment, coupled with their insights into employee motivations and potential, can be instrumental in driving organisational success.

A study by Dave Ulrich and Ellie Filler found that CHROs exhibit leadership qualities similar to those of CEOs. This suggests that CHROs could be strong candidates for CEO positions.

While CHROs may not be the first choice for CEO positions, there are several examples of successful CEOs, who started their careers in HR.

Examples of HR CEO success

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, exemplify the success of HR professionals transitioning into CEO roles. Their HR backgrounds have been instrumental in driving organisational turnarounds and fostering inclusive work environments.

Similarly, we have examples of success stories in Zimbabwe of CEOs who transitioned from HR to CEO.

Delving into CEO paradox

In corporate leadership, a persistent trend has emerged: The boardroom's penchant for CEOs possessing deep industry expertise. Mining companies seek CEOs with mining prowess, healthcare institutions gravitate towards CEOs with medical backgrounds, and construction firms often favour CEOs with engineering pedigrees.

This inclination towards industry-specific expertise is deeply ingrained in the corporate landscape, yet a crucial question remains unanswered: Does industry expertise translate into superior CEO performance?

Despite the pervasiveness of this belief, empirical evidence fails to substantiate the notion that CEOs with industry technical expertise outperform their counterparts without such expertise.

The groundbreaking CEO Genome Project, an extensive study of over 2000 CEOs, yielded a surprising finding: Industry expertise was not among the key determinants of CEO success.

Instead, the study identified a constellation of behavioural and cognitive traits that distinguished exceptional CEOs from their peers.

So, why does the allure of industry expertise persist? One plausible explanation lies in the human tendency to seek comfort in the familiar. Boards, often composed of industry veterans themselves, may gravitate towards CEOs, who mirror their backgrounds, seeking a sense of shared understanding and reduced risk.

Additionally, industry expertise can serve as a proxy for overall competence, potentially influencing boardroom perceptions of a candidate's ability to navigate the complexities of the industry.

However, this reliance on industry expertise could inadvertently hinder the pursuit of exceptional leadership. By limiting the pool of candidates to those with industry-specific backgrounds, boards may miss out on potential leaders, who possess the behavioural and cognitive traits that drive CEO success.

This narrow focus could also stifle innovation and creativity, as CEOs with diverse perspectives and experiences may be overlooked.

Moreover, the emphasis on industry expertise could perpetuate a cycle of homogeneity within corporate leadership, reinforcing existing biases and limiting the opportunities for underrepresented groups to ascend to the CEO role.

To break free from this cycle, boards must adopt a more holistic approach to CEO selection, one that prioritises the behavioural and cognitive traits that have been shown to correlate with success.

They must be open to considering candidates from diverse backgrounds, recognising that industry expertise is not a prerequisite for exceptional leadership.

  • Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and HR consulting firm. Phone +263 24 248 1 946-48/ 2290 0276, cell number +263 772 356 361 or e-mail: [email protected] or visit


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