A decade ago, a global study conducted on behalf of Oxford Economics found that just 24% of HR leaders worldwide occupied what is often called a ‘seat at the table’ – otherwise known as having a stake in the executive decision-making process. However, in the interim period, and especially following the coronavirus pandemic, HR has transitioned into debatably one of the most essential functions in any workplace’s structure – Oxford Economics’ 2022 data found that 52% of HR leaders currently occupy those coveted seats.
Yet, HR’s influence over modern working life hasn’t stopped at receiving an equal share in executive decision-making. It’s also changed the perception of those at director-level within the HR function in a drastic way. Thanks to their ability to perceive the needs of their people alongside those of the business, senior HR leaders are now starting to be seen as natural successors to outgoing CEOs. In fact, there have been several recent high-profile examples of such transitions from senior HR leader to CEO. For example, Leena Nair, the former CHRO at Unilever took on the role of CEO at Chanel, whilst Tesco’s ex-CPO, Natasha Adams, has now taken over the reins as CEO of its Irish division, and Helena Marston climbed the ranks from CPO to CEO at Purplebricks, highlighting the value that has been placed on HR.
Another employer to have moved its People Director to CEO is the Asian food chain giant, Wagamama. With the London-headquartered firm announcing the exit of its outgoing CEO, Emma Woods, in 2021, Thomas Heier ascended to the role. The HR professional-turned-CEO previously held the positions of People Director and then Chief Experience Officer within the organisation, before taking the reins at the top of the food chain. As a seasoned HR practitioner, prior to joining Wagamama Thomas held several senior HR roles at a variety of companies including Travelodge, Carnival UK, and Goldsmiths University. So, given his extensive background in HR, how did he find this transition from people function expert to CEO?
“Over the years, you’ve seen HR getting a seat at that top table more and more”
Moving from HR to CEO, Thomas explains, was not an unnatural process. He recalls: “The transition to a CEO title here at Wagamama was a natural step for me, because I understand the relevance of being a true operations partner. I’ve had to walk in their shoes, and understand the challenges, opportunities and complexities, which has helped me gain a foundational understanding of what it takes to be a CEO.”
Whilst this move from HR to CEO may have boded well in Thomas’ instance, does that mean that all HR leaders are naturally equipped to take on CEO positions? Or are there certain skills and attributes that are needed for this move to the top?
Jun 2021 – present
Chief Experience Officer
Oct 2020 – Jun 2021
People Director & Executive Lead for USA
Sept 2018 – Oct 2020
Nov 2017 – Sept 2018
Travelodge Hotels Limited
Head of HR
May 2015 – Nov 2017
VP People Services
May 2012 – May 2015
Goldsmiths, University of London
HR Strategy Consultant
Jun 2012 – Sept 2012
University of Salford
Head of HR Operations
Apr 2010 – Jun 2012
UTC Fire & Security
Jul 2009 – Apr 2010
Although in Thomas’ view, the HR function is one that is naturally well placed to transition into this top position – as his own personal journey attests – this does come with some considerations. To lead, it’s essential that HR leaders understand their remit within the business, as a key partner to it. Whilst HR’s main focus may be serving its internal stakeholders, Thomas is quick to note that all internal departments contribute to producing a top experience for its customers – something that is not possible if Wagamama’s employees do not feel that they are valued.
Therefore, to be suited to lead, he believes HR practitioners need to take advantage of the opportunities that exist for them. He explains: “I don’t think that the ability to be a leader, just because you lead in HR, is binary. However, there are a number of things that an HR career can give you exposure to or experience of, that can help you grow in that direction.
“One of those things is operating as a genuine business partner. Having your finger on the pulse, operating strategically and operationally alongside a business leader to help drive business performance, you get an almost unique view of the challenges they’re facing. You have that oversight – you should be able to see it all come together. Providing that you’re curious and switched on, and that you’re willing to perhaps swim outside of your lane, you’re very uniquely placed, and that can be a huge advantage, if you take it,” Thomas continues.
“The transition to a CEO title here at Wagamama was a natural step for me, because I understand the relevance of being a true Operations Partner”
Another key leadership advantage that Thomas believes exists within the HR function – that translates into a good skill for CEOs – is the prerequisite for emotional intelligence, the ability to perceive and manage your own emotions, and the emotions of those around you. As a company that, he notes, cares deeply about the wellbeing of its people, Wagamama is a business that invests in human connection. And, especially in times of turbulence, the ability to connect with your people and have a healthy open dialogue is essential.
This, he says, is an HR-driven asset that should, in all companies, be a key leadership priority. Thomas says: “There’s an advantage in being able to understand the experiences of your people on the ground. We’re constantly touching base and ensuring that our people understand just how important they are to the company. If you’re able to take that piece, dial up your commercial nous, and make a conscious effort to understand how the business fits together, you’re very well positioned to be considered as a credible candidate for that step up.”
Of course, external influences also have a part to play in the advancement of HR’s profile as an internal leader. The last few years saw the majority of firms turn to HR in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as employee-centric issues took centre stage. Whether it was to do with employee wellbeing, the move to hybrid or remote working, or maintaining a good company culture, HR took on a leading role. Thomas notes that this climate presented a chance for HR to prove its value.
“Opportunities present themselves, don’t they?” Thomas says. “The last couple of years have really shone a light on the importance of HR’s remit. There are a number of factors that have probably gained more provenance, which are overtly people-[related] challenges. Therefore, it makes sense that the person best placed to address these issues is a people leader. People have been given a chance to shine, and be on the cut-thrust of decision making,” he adds.
The renewed focus on HR’s many benefits may seem like a prime ticket to a leadership position. However, Thomas is steadfast in his belief that currently, many HR leaders that thrive in a more operational role are suited to remaining in an HR-oriented career path. He does, nevertheless, believe that those who are moving the dial on the more holistic view of the people function’s place within the greater business are inevitably going to continue to make the jump to CEO. “There are more and more people who have those skills now than there were ten years ago. It therefore stands to reason that what we’re seeing now is not a trend, but more a shift in the skills we look for in our leaders.”
“The idea that HR has a valuable perspective is now almost completely understood”
Irrespective of the potential for transitions to the CEO position, Thomas is passionate about the level of visibility HR currently holds within organisations. Having seen the progression himself, he’s confident that HR doesn’t need to be the overall central fixture in the business to be a truly innovative and effective leader. “Over the years, you’ve seen HR getting a seat at that top table more and more. They’re almost exclusively on that top table now; I remember times when HR would report to the COO, and the COO would disseminate at executive level, or the function would be tucked under the finance function. The idea that HR has a valuable perspective is now almost completely understood.” The data supports Thomas’ statements; a massive 80% of senior leaders believe that HR is more valuable now than ever before, according to Zippia research.
In Thomas’ view, the shifting view of HR bodes well for the next generation of leaders, both inside and outside of the function. He continues: “Sitting around the executive table, HR leaders aren’t just called upon to give the people perspective. They have opinions on everything that’s going on – because, frankly, they have to. They need to understand what’s happening in finance and marketing; they need to understand the ins-and-outs of each element of the business in order to make informed decisions. This will be a massive benefit for the future of our leadership. The more that this concept is disseminated down through the business to managers and business partners, the better. That’s what will develop the next generation of brilliant leaders in HR, and perhaps even the next generation of CEOs and MDs,” Thomas explains.
When discussing the path to the CEO title, Thomas shared some sage words on what to do when you get there. He explains: “The worst thing you can do is be a disruptor for the sake of it. Show respect for what has gone before. Observe, be curious, and understand why things are the way they are. Coming in and changing things for the sake of it will lose you the trust investment of your people, and you’ll likely have little to show for it.
“Once you bide your time and listen, you’ll have a base level of credibility, which will aid you in the process of making any changes further down the line. If you can’t win hearts and minds, then you cannot be a successful leader,” he adds. In other words, keep your eyes and ears open, and only when you truly understand the business proposition and internal mechanics, is it the right time to act.
It’s clear that Thomas places a great emphasis on not just how HR operates internally, but how it fits inside the wider company. Cutting their teeth in HR will likely give those who are CEO material a promising start in their new role, but it may not be the be-all-and-end-all of a competent CEO.
The good news is that, regardless of the rise in CPO to CEO career moves, HR is undoubtedly more respected, more prominent and more of a company leader than ever before. Those looking to stay on top of HR’s shifting position within the corporate hierarchy must be prepared to take on greater accountability for driving innovation and executing business transformation – especially in this new hybrid working model. If Thomas is correct, this shift in the perception of HR is far from a fleeting trend. As he states: “The future looks good for HR’s leadership.”