The Great HR Debate: What does it take for the HR to reach the top?


While talent and people are undoubtedly crucial to business success, HR plays a vital supporting role in ensuring that the company has the right talent and organisational structure in place to achieve its goals.

We generally see CEOs or other senior executives from the top ranks shouldering the responsibility of setting the strategic direction of the company and ensuring its success, while the HR may play a critical role in supporting these efforts. That being said, the role of HR has evolved over the years to become more strategic and focused on talent management and organisational effectiveness.

Therefore, to understand the changing importance of HR in current times and how this is bringing them closer to the top role, respected industry veteran, Krish Shankar, group head-HR, Infosys, addressed the crowd at The Great HR Debate, held at the Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru on February 17, 2023.

Krish began with the importance and evolution of HR in recent times, and whether the HR is really close to being the CEO, and if not, how can it make it to the top.

Tracing the chequered journey of HR, Krish talked about how, in the beginning, people always questioned the importance of HR. In fact, HR was more about IR than HR in most companies. Recalling his own long career in the industry, Shankar explained how the HR role used to be limited to certain activities, making people think whether that was all they could do in HR.

However, today, “I’ve seen over the years that HR and CHROs have really been a core part of the business, especially in India,” observed Shankar. He strongly believes that HR in India is amongst the best because people here are much more business focused, without losing focus on the people element. That way, many Indian companies have come up with very innovative practices and business strategies to meet their business needs. One can now see HR at the table making the contributions to shape the business strategy and drive growth.

“Those who wish to become successful CEOs need to possess a specific set of skills, behaviours, experience and mindset.”

Krish Shankar, group head-HR, Infosys


He rightly pointed out that to run any organisation successfully, one needs many things in place today. The technology should be up-to-date along with the finances. However, in the long run, “there are just three things I consider as sustainable sources of value in any organisation. The first and foremost is the talent (people skills), second is the culture (how they behave and make things work), and lastly the reputation of the brand,” shared Shankar.

Technology can be developed, and finances can always be found in the form of private equity or venture capital, but to build a sustainable business model these three sources are a must, and this is where HR has managed to play a crucial role. Being at the core, HR managed its people all through the pandemic, putting up with the talent challenges that came in the way. “So, we can clearly conclude that over the years the role of HR has become very important,” asserted Shankar.

So, does this mean that the HR person or the CHRO can be the CEO?

Shankar shared with the audience a framework developed from his own experiences over the years. He calls it the “‘SBEM framework’, where the S stands for skills, B for behaviors and E for experiences, alongside the right mindset or M required to reach the higher role.”

To perform any job successfully, it’s first significant to identify the skills needed. Then comes the need to look for the kind of behaviours or competencies that people should possess. The third step step is to ensure adequate experience required for the role.

When it comes to senior roles, experience becomes more significant, giving a fair idea of how the person will manage responsibilities in the future, in the given role.

The last and most crucial element is the mindset, which becomes more important as one moves up the ranks. For instance, while hiring a CFO for a company in the commodity business, in a fast growth kind of firm, the mindset of that CFO has to be different from other companies. If the company’s focus is to cut costs, the CFO also should have a stronger mindset to cut costs and sweat assets.

“The mindset of the leaders in certain key roles, especially the CEO, is very important because that determines whether the business needs to be cost focussed or investment focused. A CEO who’s thinking much more investment or much more long term may not always work,” pointed out Shankar.

He went on to add, “Those who wish to become successful CEOs need to possess a specific set of skills, behaviours, experience and mindset. We should assess whether a chief human resources officer (CHRO) meets these requirements before considering the person as a potential CEO. That doesn’t imply that HR is not crucial to business, or that HR professionals can’t become CEOs. I believe it’s important to thoroughly examine each of these elements before making a decision.”

How to reach the top

The top position is not something that can be achieved overnight. It takes years of consistency, persistence, and planning ahead. As Shankar rightly put it, “One cannot think of being the CEO after 50 years of working in just HR, and this is one of the challenges we face today.”

He further explained how HR has today evolved into a more specialised and scientific field, and how our own isolated areas of expertise have been developed. HR professionals tend to work within these silos, which can be problematic if they aspire to become CEOs. To determine whether one has what it takes to be a CEO, one must first find out whether one has the necessary experiences. If one have spent one’s entire career solely focused on compensation and benefits, for instance, one will not be qualified to become a CEO.”

Reminiscing his old days with Unilever, he recalled how in those days, HR heads were business people because it mattered the most at that time. But they would put the best business leaders to lead the function. He remembered how employee relations was led by his boss, Narin Nanda, who was from a manufacturing background — a person who went on to develop the detergent powder, Wheel. That was how only the best people were picked to run HR.

“One cannot think of being the CEO after 50 years of working in just HR, and this is one of the challenges we face today.”

Krish Shankar, group head-HR, Infosys

Krish emphasised that even if HR and people management are important roles within a company, it doesn’t guarantee that someone from HR will become the CEO. Hence, to best increase the chances of becoming a CEO, one must start thinking about it early, planning one’s career goals and experiences accordingly.

Nowadays, organisations expect employees to have cross-functional expertise, so it’s crucial to plan for long-term career growth within the company. Focussing on a narrow, siloed HR role alone in the short term, may hinder a person’s ability to advance to CEO position in the future. Therefore, Krish suggested that it’s essential to have a longer-term career plan and gain a broader range of experiences within the company — by taking on cross-functional roles—to reach the top.

In summary, HR is very important, as talent, people and culture are most critical to business success. However, that does not necessarily mean that an HR person is ready for the CEO’s role. After all, a person aspiring to be a CEO must fit into the SBEM (skills, behaviour, experiences mindset) framework. Thirdly, a fair bit of planning is required if one aims to be a CEO. One cannot hope to don the CEO mantel after spending 20 years in similar roles or functions. It is important to move around and be exposed to other functions. Experience across HR— amongst various roles within HR — will not suffice. Experience of a core role as well as a business partner role, in addition to roles beyond HR and directly connected to the business are necessary.

An easy way to do this is to have a kind of a runway in a company where one has that opportunity, to take a punt and run their own business or be entrepreneurial. Such experiences do count in the long run and take one closer to the top,” concluded Shankar.

The event is powered by Tata Steel Industrial Consulting in association with Keka HR. Other partners are Vantage Circle (employee engagement partner), Greyt HR (HR and payroll partner), Thomas Assessment ( talent assessment partner ) & NHRD Bangalore Chapter (community partner). The event is supported by XLRI Alumni Bangalore Chapter & XISS Alumni Bangalore Chapter. 

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