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Mary Barra: The rare CEO who worked in human resources

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Mary Barra's ascendance to the CEO job at General Motors—her first official day on the job was Jan. 15—is unusual for many reasons. She's the first woman to run a global automaker. She's a company lifer at a time when many executives jump around every few years as they climb the corporate ladder.

But there's something else different about Mary: She's worked in human resources, an unusual way station for those who've gone on to reach the corner office.

Despite the ubiquitous claim among CEOs that employees are their top priority and talent is their No. 1 asset, it's actually quite rare for HR veterans to reach the top. "It's not a typical career path to the CEO job," says John Wood, vice chairman of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. "It happens more by exception."

At some companies, that may be because human resources still has the reputation of a corporate backwater preoccupied with administrivia. More typically, the reason career HR executives don't reach the CEO's desk is simply because they usually don't have the line management experience or profit and loss responsibility to prove their track record.

Some of the rare executives who have become CEO with an HR stint on their resumes include John Deere CEO Samuel R. Allen, Thomson Reuters CEO James C. Smith and Transocean CEO Steven L. Newman. Yet executives of this sort were typically general managers who rotated through the HR role on the way to the C-suite, not HR lifers. That was the case with Barra, who "cut her teeth running a major business unit, which sets her apart from most other" human resources chiefs, writes Korn Ferry vice chairman Dennis Carey, an executive recruiter, in an email.

But even those kinds of rotations don't happen too often. Running human resources, for all its poor PR, is an essential and highly technical role that involves a great deal of compliance and compensation expertise that many general managers don't possess. When companies do choose to move operations executives through the job, says Claudia Lacy Kelly, who leads the North American human resources practice at the executive search firm Spencer Stuart, they need to be sure they don't demotivate the HR experts one rung down who may no longer see a path to the top.

"The conundrum is it's a great place to develop general managers," Kelly says, "but you have to be able to retain your highly talented HR executives while you’re doing it."

Barra herself has an engineering background and, before taking on the role of product chief, served as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, ran an assembly plant, and held the role of executive director of competitive operations engineering. In addition, her two years in the HR job came at a critical time for the company that allowed her to prove her worth.

"It was in the wake of the bankruptcy filing," says Susan Meisenger, the former CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. "It gave her an extraordinary opportunity to know the organizational structure, to know all the pieces of the company. It got her exposure to senior leaders from across the organization."

Human resources may not be a typical stop on the road to the corner office. But both search consultants and governance experts say corporate boards are increasingly looking to add directors with an HR background—especially as boards increase their focus on executive compensation and on talent as a distinguisher in a knowledge-driven economy. "We are seeing more and more women going onto boards because they have had strategic talent experience" on their resumes, says Susan Stautberg, a co-founder of the nonprofit WomenCorporateDirectors.

But even if more HR officers find a place in the boardroom, recruiters don't think Barra is a sign that a tour of duty in the personnel department will be under demand for new CEOs. "I can’t think of anyone saying, 'Get me a CEO with an HR background,'" Wood says. That may be because it's really already part of the job description, he adds. "Every CEO needs to be in some sense the chief HR person. In most corporations, the talent—and the care and feeding of the talent—really is the primary job of the CEO."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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