I was interviewing the VP HR of a large global firm when I was forced to interrupt. "You are speaking very strangely! I've been listening to you for twenty minutes and all you've been talking about is the business." There was no talk of the ERM, culture surveys, on-boarding or intelligent organizations-where did this guy come from? I asked him exactly that and he blurted out the truth, he wasn't an HR person at all, he had studied economics.
A disquieting thought leapt unbidden to my mind. If I were a CEO hiring for a VP HR, one of the qualifications I would demand is:
No experience in HR
You always know when you are talking to someone who didn't come up the HR ladder. They are always grounded in the reality of the business and interested in HR practices only in as much as they are useful. If I were hiring, this is the kind of person I would be looking for. While I'd want some certified HR people lower in the ranks, I'd want a non-HR person leading the department.
This critique no doubt applies to other staff professions. If it were possible, I'd like to have a non-IT person running IT and a non-lawyer leading the legal function. However, let's stick to our own battle.
In the past, HR was unimportant enough that a person steeped in HR could make VP. Now that is changing. HR-and by that I mean an understanding of people and organizations, not an understanding of compliance-is critical to everything the CEO wants to do. A second rate VP HR just won't do anymore.
In the past we've said, "HR is Business" and urged HR people to focus on business needs. Let me take this one step further. If you are looking to get to the top job in HR, then you need to get out of HR.
You need to take the risk of moving into a line role and plunge deep into the world of your business. Only after several years in the line role would I judge you to have washed off enough of your HR experience to be deemed suitable for a VP job.