Be Like Mary Barra: How HR Leaders Can Become CEOs

By now, most of you are aware that a former human resources leader has transcended the HR space to become CEO of a Fortune 100 company. And for the uninitiated (click here for some descriptive text on Mary Barra), the former vice president of HR at General Motors Co. will become the automaker’s new CEO. 

With that promotion in mind, many in the HR space trumpeted the ascension of a former HR leader to a Fortune 100 CEO spot as proof positive that HR pros can be anything they want to be. And while the promotion of Barra as the leader of General Motors is great news for HR, caution on what it means is probably warranted. Just because you’re in HR doesn’t mean you can be CEO. In fact, you still probably need to get out of HR to become a CEO.

Need proof?  Let’s look at part of Barra’s background/profile as captured by Bloomberg Businessweek:

Before becoming CEO, Barra served “as executive vice president of global product development and global purchasing and supply chain at General Motors Co. Ms. Barra served as senior vice president of global product development at General Motors Co. since Feb. 1, 2011, and served as its chief of product development. … She began her career with General Motors in 1980 as a General Motors Institute (Kettering University) co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division. She has been director of general Dynamics Corp. since March 15, 2011. Ms. Barra serves on the Kettering University Board of Trustees and Inforum Center for Leadership Board of Directors. … Ms. Barra received a GM fellowship to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute (Kettering University). She holds an MBA in Business Administration from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990.”

What’s all that mean? If you’re an HR leader with a dream, here are five things the Barra profile tells us you need to do to become CEO:

1. Get the hell out of HR soon. Let’s be clear: One look at the Barra profile tells you her HR experience was part of a power rotation to learn the business, not a defining tag on her résumé. That should tell you what has always been the reality: You need to rotate elsewhere to be enough of a player to become the CEO of a company of any size and scale.

2. Deep subject matter expertise in an area core to the business is desired. Barra is an engineer at heart, an area that’s obviously core to GM’s business. Your company also has a similar heartbeat. If you have an undergrad that matches that heartbeat, you could do HR, take a rotation elsewhere and become a player in the race to become the boss. If your educational background doesn’t fit, you have no chance. But you could find a company that provides a better match and values your non-HR undergrad.

3.  Depending on the company’s focus, you need to decide which rotational path is best. Most companies these days have cultures that are defined by product or by sales. If your company is product-focused and your educational background is a match, you take a non-HR rotation in that area. If your company is sales-focused, follow that path. A sales focus at your company also allows you to worry less about a lack of match in your educational background with the company’s core product or service as long as you’re willing to risk it all with a career in sales management.

4.  Top tier MBAs still rule. Barra is a Stanford MBA grad. The mail-order MBA isn’t going to cut it if you want to be a CEO of a big company. You need to go get the elite MBA.

5. Get the hell out of HR. I had to say it twice, because it’s that important. I know you love it, but if your goal is to be the CEO, you’re not going to get there from here.

Get to the rotational program and get out of HR if you want to be CEO. As much as we want to believe the Barra story says we can become CEOs, it’s only true if we’re brave enough to leave.

Originally published in Workforce


To build or not to build? That’s the inclusion question

InclusionInclusion has become an approach to working with employees that are different or have special needs. Typically inclusion efforts are employed because an organization notices that there is a morale issue within a certain group or within the organization as a whole, a legal challenge has been brought forward against the organization, or there has been an effort to organize a union.   Unfortunately, many of the inclusion or diversity efforts fail because they are reactive tactics used to pacify a group or groups.  Even much of the discrimination and harassment training that exists is utilized to stay out of legal trouble or in direct response to a legal issue.  What a large number of organizations fail to see is that a reactive effort to respond to these types of issues actually alienates and disenfranchises many employees.

Employees do not want to be treated well because they are different.  And employees do not want to be treated well because the organization is afraid of an organizing effort. Employees want to feel respected, included and valued, not sometimes, but consistently.  To demonstrate respect, interest and value in your employees on a consistent basis an organization must develop a strong, clear and productive culture.

When a culture lacks clarity and is ambiguous we create many of our inclusion problems.  Amazingly, human nature generally shows that under stress and in ambiguous situations, we fill in the blanks incorrectly or exaggerate; usually toward the negative.  Individuals tend to infused negative motives on the other person(s) or company and provide opinions as facts to support their perspective.

Two consistent aspects of a strong, clear and productive culture are that it builds trust and reduces fear.

Trust has to do with our Present Interest.  The question we should consistently ask ourselves in different situations is “What is my Present Interest?”  If my Present Interest is truly in others meaning the person in front of me, my team, customer then I will create more trust.  The opposite is also true.  If my focus is on myself, Self Interest, then trust levels will be reduced.  Think of it as a continuum.  The more self-interested we are, the more our relationships will suffer or be superficial.  This is due to the fact that we cannot focus on other people and their needs when we are focused on ourselves.  We just cannot be in two places at once.  The challenge we face is that most of us are naturally self-interested; it is human nature.  Our leaders must role model an interest in others for a culture to be built.

Success is about reducing fear and anxiety.  Everyone wants to be a part of a winning team.  But what makes up a winning team? Success has to do with our Present Motive.  The question we should consistently ask ourselves in different situations is “What is my Present Motive?” or “why am I making this decision?” If my Present Motive is centered on Opportunity, meaning I am focused on what is possible then I will create more success.  The opposite is also true.  If my focus is on Risk, then I am trying to reduce my liabilities and will create less success or achievement. We know that this, too, is a continuum.  The less we are able to work through our fears, the more likely we will be unsuccessful.  There are two reasons for this phenomenon.  The first reason is based on the concept that we cannot focus on opportunities when we are too worried or about risk.  The second reason is if we act on our fear, the very thing we fear most will come true.

The reality is that many of our company cultures have reacted too much to our national culture of litigation.  We spend a great deal of time focusing on how not to get sued or called on the carpet by a government agency.  By responding to the current climate in this way we tend to create the very problem we wanted to avoid.  Cultures that focus on creating an incredible place to work typically have less inclusion problems and less legal issues.

Here are some tips on creating a culture that is more inclusive:

  • Create a leadership development process and program that is mandatory for all leaders
  • Develop a process for selecting the most appropriate leaders and not just promote those who are good individual contributors
  • Ask employees for feedback on a regular basis including the use of 360 feedback tools and engagement surveys
  • Encourage people to talk face to face when possible rather than use email
  • Discourage multi-tasking by asking people to work on the 20% that creates 80% of the impact rather than on everything
  • Transparency. Transparency.  Transparency.  Secrets are cancer.  While you cannot share everything…share as much as you can, as soon as you can.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  In multiple ways and multiple times.  Messages must be heard often to stick
  • Get to know your employees.  Know who they not just what they do.  We tend to include those we understand.

Remember we spend more time at work then we do with our families.  Our organizations are more than a workplace they are a home. Our organizations should be a place where everyone we hire feels like they have a place and space, feel involved, included and respected. A place where there are shared norms, goals and expectations.  A place where you can feel free to be yourself and are valued for your uniqueness.    And a place where you feel safe.  Ask yourself, how many of our employees consistently feel like they are a part of a family and have a place in our workplace home?

Originally published in: Words on Wise


Our society and economy has gone through many changes over the years.  Organizations have changed the way they deliver products and services.  We have clearly moved into a new realm of business and yet, our organizational structures, our leadership practices, and the way we operate have remained relatively stable compared to the rapid change in technology, globalization, products and services, and the economy overall.  It’s time we rethink the way we operate as leaders and as organizations.  Below is a table that outlines the stark difference between where we’ve been and where we need to be, between what leadership used to be and what needs to be now.

Old View

New View

Bet on the leader Create a leadership culture
Compete Collaborate
Proven practices New practices
Idea generation Innovation
Structure/Hierarchy Networks
Manage Engage
Strategic plan Strategic purpose
Reward work roles Reward work contribution
Clone decision making Encourage individual decision making
“Go to” person – exclusive accountability  Ownership culture – inclusive accountability
Develop “High Potentials” Develop everyone

What other shifts do you see?  Where are we succeeding in meeting these new challenges?  Where are we falling short?

What is the Best Way to Develop Leadership Skills?

Leadership is a skill as much as it is a character trait. While it is part of a more dominant personality, it is an essential part of governing businesses, as well as having direct involvement with several other aspects in life. An individual that excels in leadership skills can explain and educate another; whether it be their child or potential employee with professional etiquette and sensitivity to all the necessary things. Leadership is a structured foundation of awareness that centres on clear communication in an influential and encouraging way. Leadership’s skills are enhanced by:

•              Critical thinking

•              Taking initiative

•              Listening in an effective way

•              Motivating/encouraging others

•              Time-Management

•              Discipline

•              Delegation

•              Conflict resolution

•              Awareness of when to lead, and when to follow

Awareness to strengths

Developing leadership skills is a process of determined focus. Itis understanding the concepts associated with leadership and giving them the proper room and attention to grow as assets/tools at your disposal. The list above gives a general rundown of the ideas and actions that structure leadership. While all are important, a few should be given a bit more recognition and further definition.

Awareness of when to lead and when to follow

This is such an important thing to consider, and ties in directly with a respectful trait; modesty. The acceptance that while holding the position of ‘boss’ or ‘leader’ understanding that people have the natural ability to excel at certain things. They are born as mathematical geniuses, or scientific gurus, and rather than challenge it and compete, it can be turned into a great combination of teamwork. By working together with professional etiquette you teach each other the skills you excel at, and in the end you maintain the role of leader, and modestly earns the respect and knowledge of your colleague.

Delegation paired with time-management

A successful leader is able to see a list of things that needs to be addressed and order them in roles of importance. Proper delegation and time management skills leads an operation to running smoothly and efficiently, capitalizing on the things that need to get done, while having awareness of the objectives that don’t need immediate attention. The proper analysis involved here can be the difference between a successful day, or a day of hectic and dramatic incidents.


Discipline is essentially a list of guidelines one chooses to live by, but more importantly, what they expect from others. Consistent discipline creates a governed atmosphere of expectation, a sense of right and wrong, and gives the workplace a structure it needs to run in an efficient manner. Without structure it would be an operation running as a free-for-all. It would not only lack efficiency in the tasks carried out throughout the day, but it would hinder the goal everyone was contributing towards. The end result would be unnecessary problems.

Leadership as a whole

While each item on the list contributes to leadership success, the additional notations listed above are key to its overall functionality. Leadership is an ability associated with traits, but more importantly the consistency overtime of demonstrating these traits. Leadership is centred on respect, and without it there can be no growth. Without the respect from you peers, regardless of one’s position of power, leadership would slowly absolve and become less and less functional in a particular area. The best way to develop leadership skills is through understanding what creates and enhances leadership. Practice makes perfect, and with proper recognition, the growth of a perfect leader is centred on a list of ideas tied to one very important thing; focus.

Richard McMunn, is the founder and director of the leading career website His aim is to help as many people as possible pass the recruitment process they are applying for to secure the job they really want. The website offers a wide range of books, dvds and courses for those who want to ensure they have every stage of the process covered. You can also connect with Richard and How2become on YouTube

I Will Huff and I’ll Puff! The Challenge of Re-Engagement!

3 Little PigsRe-engagement: Coming Back from a Difficult Time and Culture in an Organization

We have said that engagement begins with the individual, grows among team members, and shapes the future of the organization. However, this is not always a smooth progression. What happens when there is a loss of engagement? The loss may be due to a difficult relationship or event, or the more far-reaching impact of a culture shift in the entire organization.

How do we re-build when there is not only a lack of trust, but a loss of trust? Can the promises that once worked create a sense of confidence among employees who are “once bitten, twice shy”?

There is good news and bad news about re-engagement. To offer the bad news first, regaining trust has special challenges. The process must begin with an understanding of what went wrong, and the dedications to make the necessary changes to be sure it won’t happen again. As in the story of the “three little pigs,”  the right materials must be found to make sure the house isn’t “blown down” each time a storm of controversy arrives at the door.

The process of identifying the problems and their impact must be sensitive to the fact that different people may have been affected in different ways by the events that created the loss of engagement. Those affected by the problems and those responsible for them must find a way to identify solutions which everyone can accept, in spite of their differences.

It is only as plans to move forward and implement the solutions materialize, that there is the opportunity to re-establish a spirit of engagement. The good news is that as this happens, there is the opportunity to reap the rewards of what has been learned to create a stronger and more “storm proof” environment for the future. Individuals will be able to apply what they have learned about themselves, their team members, and the organization, as they seek to make a greater contribution. Heroes can emerge in this process who had not assumed this role before. Employees can assume a greater commitment to not only create a spirit of engagement, but to recognize its fragility, and their role in building the engagement culture “brick by brick” each day. In this way, employees can see how their contribution is needed more than ever to keep their work environment safe and sound.

As with individuals, fluctuations in engagement in an organization are inevitable. They create difficulties, but also opportunities for insight and growth. They point to weaknesses, and highlight areas of strength. The important thing is to approach them with more engagement and openness, not less, and to build engagement strength through increased resistance. In this way, employees will not to be left with no structure to support them, like the pigs in the woods!

In building your culture of engagement, it is important to discuss in advance what you will do when the wolf comes to the door. What are the values and outcomes you will protect at all cost? How are individuals in your engaged culture empowered to identify and communicate concerns before they increase in size? What resources are dedicated to reviewing the issues of concern and determining what action, if any, should be taken? How will this process be monitored? What result is anticipated, and how will this contribute to the success of the organization and its engagement  culture?

Dr. Edward Morler, an organizational psychologist who works with leadership teams, refers to “integration” or “disintegration” in describing individual personality characteristics. His point is that as individuals assume a more “win-win” mentality, they adopt the best characteristics of other personality types. On the other hand, if they are less committed to what is best for others, they may adopt some of the less desirable characteristics of other personality types.

The challenges faced by an organization suffering a loss of engagement present the opportunity for the to move to a more “win-win” environment, adopting new positive characteristics along the way..  It is a process that requires patience and commitment, but is well worth the effort.

What challenges to engagement does your organization face? How are they addressed? In what ways can they help you to become better, and stronger in your commitment to engagement, than before?

Engagement is Collaboration: Art in the Making

Underwater SculptureLast week I said…”It has been said that human beings use only a small amount of their true abilities, cognitively as well as in their roles at work, in performing their duties each day. If each of us can do so much more, can you imagine what highly engaged people can do in teams? However, every bit of the benefit of teamwork depends upon collaboration – an art that has been lost as we focus on what we can do individually.”

This week I want to highlight what is possible when we do have a higher mission than ourselves and we can cut our self-interest enough to truly collaborate.  Watch the video below that highlights what can happen when two parties collaborate not quarrel.  It will surprise you!