HR does not have a reputation as a launch pad to the corner office. However time spent in a smart, forward-looking HR function can help you grow as a person in ways that are invaluable to success in any number of executive positions–and as a Higher Ambition leader–including as the chief executive. We found this out when we interviewed Tim Solso for our book, Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value. Solso was then the CEO of Cummins, where he led a much-vaunted turnaround, and is now the Independent Lead Director on the board at GM. From Solso’s undergraduate work in psychology at DePauw University through his stints in HR and other functions at Cummins, Solso mastered the human factors that enable an executive to increase workforce engagement even when driving sometimes painful change. We wrote:
Solso’s power in “unleashing the power of Cummins” demonstrates the extraordinary level of commitment that a leader can create when allowing individuals to voice their personal aspirations and values and see these reflected in the enterprise to which they have devoted their professional lives. This kind of process shifts the basis of commitment from allegiance to an individual leader (Solso), a product (diesel engines), or a place (Columbus, Indiana) to a more enduring sense of shared purpose and direction.
Solso’s story came to mind recently when we read Brook Manville’s recent piece in Forbes on Anne Mulchahy, former CEO of Xerox. Like Solso, Mulchahy had to make tough calls, cut costs, and turn a corporate behemoth in a new direction. Manville writes that Mulchahy’s time in “dead-end” HR was actually a time of critical personal and professional development:
Her strategy of relentless cost-cutting, organizational focus, and boosted innovation is now a well-known story. Less explored have been the sources of personal growth and knowledge that underpinned her exemplary leadership performance. And in particular, whether the unlikely stint in HR for this “accidental CEO” (as she was also called then) somehow contributed to the corporate achievements beside her name in today’s business school textbooks.
Mulcahy told Manville, “Another executive brought in to lead an earlier restructuring of the company before me had utterly failed as a people leader. By about year 2000 the Board was really stuck—and decided an employee-oriented insider was needed to head Xerox after all the disappointment and turmoil.”
Understanding the people and culture of Xerox were essential to Mulcahy’s steps to reshaping and rejuvenating the organization. As she told Manville:
What I took away from my sales experience was a deep understanding of Xerox customers–seeing through their eyes how to create value. When I was offered the HR job, it was a chance to learn through another set of eyes—Xerox people and the keepers of our company culture. I was always fascinated by issues of talent, organizational effectiveness, and leadership development. HR was my opportunity for that.
Mulcahy further explained that her HR experience built key credibility for later leading the painful cost-cutting and organizational changes that ultimately rescued Xerox. “I always said when I started the turnaround, I had a lot of ‘leadership money in the bank’ to draw on. Without it, I never could have pushed through the changes we needed. My years in HR were a big part of how I built that up.”
“Leadership money in the bank” is an interesting concept. It is akin to political capital in other arenas. Mulcahy built an important network of supporters and a deep understanding of Xerox through the years. She was able to draw upon others’ trust and belief in her as she charted a new, ultimately successful course for the company. Her vision was not just about the share price. It was also about the people and a vibrant future for them at Xerox.
Higher Ambition leaders understand that while the cachet of time in HR waxes and wanes (mostly waning in recent decades), their success depends upon their ability to connect with their people around a shared vision of the future. Roles in which they can build relationships, hone cultural insight, and develop people are gems to be sought out. They make the most of every assignment to build the balance in their leadership bank accounts. “Dead end” HR? Bring it on!