Are HR heads better equipped to take on a COO role?

HR leaders are natural people-focussed problem solvers, who make data-driven decisions. This makes them ideal to step up as effective COOs.

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A leader in the role of a chief operating officer (COO) needs to have a good understanding of business, people management and the industry as a whole. With HR playing on the front foot in today’s time, it may be safe to say that CHROs are well equipped to take on the role of a COO.

Just like any other function in a business, the role of HR has seen a staggering shift in responsibilities over the years. The people element has become all the more crucial today and organisations are looking at their HR heads to steer at the helm.

The leap from CHRO to COO is not unique and has been building since a decade, when the role of HR evolved into that of an HR chief operating officer. Essentially, the leader in this role is someone who focuses on how HR services are delivered, as well as the design, development and implementation of HR services. According to a Deloitte report on the same, the role requires a mix of experience in HR, finance, technology, operations, and executive leadership, as well as a focus on HR service delivery and operations with the added responsibilities of risk, regulation, compliance budgets and change management.

Shashikanth KS

“In my view, one has to choose what one is really passionate about. Anyone who has the right aptitude, rigour and people skills can do a good job as an operator.”

The post-COVID scenario has brought about a steep learning curve for companies and expanded the role and scope of HR officers multifold. It has put HR in the forefront of crisis management, and as an enabler of business continuity.

Krishna Muniramaiah, head-HR, APAC, Altimetrik, says that for an HR leader to make the leap to COO is certainly a possibility and mentions that we may see more such cases in the future. “HR is not what it used to be 10 years ago. In forward-looking companies and among high-performing CHROs, this is truly a possibility,” he adds.

Shashikanth KS, a leader who has himself made the change from CHRO at Aditya Birla Retail, to COO, Chai Point, feels that managing operations is more about common sense even though many professionals may find it difficult. “In my view, one has to choose what one is really passionate about. Anyone who has the right aptitude, rigour and people skills can do a good job as an operator,” he opines.

What makes HR leaders well equipped to become COOs?

It is the fact that while the role and title change, they are still required to manage day-to-day operations and people. Moreover, anytime a business is after the latest innovation to amplify revenue, it will invest in looking after the most critical element, the people who are going to deliver it.

By investing more in people, and tying HR functions closely to organisational goals, HR-tuned COOs can prove to be effective at their role.

HR already has a seat at the table and the current crisis has presented a silver lining, of opportunity, to deliver greater business impact for HR heads.

Muniramaiah points out, “During COVID, HR has been brought into the front office and it is helping HR heads evolve. The expectation to perform and go beyond has ensured that HR leaders make the best use of this opportunity.”

A few instances of CHRO to COO do already exist. For any HR head, in addition to the in-depth knowledge of managing talent-related aspects, there are a few key points to keep in mind to become a successful COO.

Shashikanth points out that an aptitude and orientation towards the operational rigour, and an understanding of the nuts and bolts of the business — how it runs on a day-to-day basis — is the first step towards the COO’s chair.

Delivering on the customer experience front is also a primary agenda, and to achieve this one needs to touch base with customers regularly.

Every business has had to make the change to work from home in recent months, and this requires hyper responsiveness and quick decision- making skills on the part of HR, which is a critical part of the COO’s role as well.

Krishna Muniramaiah

“HR is not what it used to be 10 years ago. In forward-looking companies and among high-performing chief operating officers, it is truly possible for an HR leader to make the leap to COO.”

Finally, one needs to hone one’s analytical skills and have the ability to digest numbers on a constant, ongoing basis and make decisions based on data most of the time.

HR leaders have the responsibility to ensure that the success of the business is aligned with the happiness of its employees, and advocate both simultaneously. HR heads have to be analytical, focussed on solutions and capable of building relationships on trust. All these tools, which ensure success for CHROs, will do equally well for COOs.

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