For C-suite veteran Nigel Travis, the path to the CEO office was atypical—because it ran directly through the HR function. While his transformation from CHRO to CEO was an outlier several decades ago, it is a more natural move today, experts say, as HR leaders increasingly play a strategic business role. That shift is enabling HR executives to more readily develop and leverage deep business knowledge that could ultimately help them climb the corporate ladder to the CEO role.
From 2009-18, Travis served as CEO of Dunkin’ Brands and previously was CEO at Papa John’s International. But for more than two decades earlier in his career, Travis was an HR professional, ultimately heading up the HR department at international food chain Burger King.
As senior vice president of HR at Burger King from 1989 to 1991, Travis focused on aligning people and business strategy, which had him closely examining talent-related business issues. However, it was his questions about the organization’s profit/loss challenges outside the HR function that caught his boss’ attention. One day, his boss approached him with an observation: Travis possessed the business acumen to run an operations unit.
Subsequent discussions with this C-suite leader prompted the long-time HR pro to pivot, becoming Burger King’s managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa in 1991. It put his career on a new path and led him to Blockbuster in 1994, where he eventually became president and chief operating officer. Then, in 2005, he joined Papa John’s International as CEO.
Transitioning from CHRO to CEO
Travis’ journey from HR to CEO is one that few human resource leaders have taken. Those who have include Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; Leena Nair, CEO of Chanel; and Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox.
But as the people function becomes more tightly aligned to corporate goals and HR leaders become more skilled at leveraging data analytics to drive business, the number of CHROs who are CEO-ready may grow in the next five years. That’s the prediction Scott Cawood, CEO of WorldatWork and author of The New Work Exchange: Embracing the Future by Putting Employees First, told HRE in a previous interview.
“If the CHRO really listens to the business, then the CHRO should know what to do [as CEO],” Cawood says, adding, “HR is there to help the business perform.”
A recent Harvard Business Review post and Gallup report similarly explain why the CEO role could be a natural step for modern CHROs, citing HR executives’ expertise in managing the organization’s largest asset: its people. The task became increasingly more complex in recent years—amid pandemic-driven lockdowns, vaccine policies, return-to-office strategies and more.
The broadening responsibility facing today’s HR leaders has allowed many to demonstrate their capability for navigating the many moving pieces of a business; recent research from SHRM finds that 80% of C-suite leaders surveyed identify HR as a crucial contributor to business success.
Here is how Travis leveraged his HR skills to change his career course, the challenges he faced during the transition and what he says it takes to navigate the process successfully.