Ask Julie Sexton what it’s like to be CHRO at food giant Land O’Lakes and her response may surprise you.
“The one thing I have found interesting in moving into the CHRO role is it’s not about being the chief executive of HR,” Sexton told HRE in a recent interview at the i4cp Next Practices Now Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s about being a business leader of the organization.”
For Sexton, taking a business approach to HR comes naturally. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, followed by an MBA at the same university with a concentration in human resources.
Business-savvy HR executives, in fact, are increasingly getting tapped for CEO roles. Prominent moves in recent years include Unilever CHRO Leena Nair, who was named CEO of global fashion powerhouse Chanel in 2021, and General Motors’ Mary Barra, a former HR vice president at the company who was promoted to CEO in 2014.
Sexton, for her part, has been melding her HR role at Land O’Lakes with the company’s business needs for more than 24 years, including the past two as CHRO.
CHRO of the future: Bring business to HR
Land O’Lakes has always included the CHRO as a member of the executive leadership team, Sexton says. And when she took on the job, stepping into that role as a business leader was one of the most fascinating and biggest challenges, she says.
Wearing a business hat as CHRO, Sexton finds she needs to ask herself a number of questions to help make herself a better business leader, such as about what’s going on with the current state of the company’s operations, for example.
See more: Are tomorrow’s CHROs ready to take on the top job?
Although Sexton has an MBA, HR leaders don’t need to follow the same path to have success in their careers. She advises leaders to spend time learning and understanding the company’s business, including its manufacturers, services it offers and products it sells, as well as its customers and performance in the market.
That’s what Sexton did, especially as an HR business partner. In this role, Sexton was so familiar with the business that she was just as much part of the business leadership team as the other members and, as a result, they almost forgot about her HR role, she says.
Ramp up business knowledge
Throughout her career at Land O’Lakes, Sexton also worked in a number of areas within HR from talent acquisition to project management and total rewards, another suggestion she gives to aspiring HR leaders.
“You want to spend time moving around the HR organization,” Sexton says. “Having that breadth of human resource functional experience is also important.”
It can be equally valuable to expand your skill set beyond HR and work in other departments within the company, Sexton says. That’s a tip that GM’s Barra followed before becoming chair and CEO. She worked as a GM vice president of global manufacturing engineering, a senior vice president of global product development, general director of internal communications for corporate staffs, and other positions at the company before ascending to the CEO slot.
See also: CHROs and CEOs Look Differently at the Future
“To be a future CHRO, I think having done that step outside of human resources will be super valuable, no matter where it is,” she says. “You’re there not just to learn but to also deliver something as well.”
CHRO of the future: Big picture strategy required
Despite spending time in a number of areas within the Land O’Lakes HR organization, Sexton found that streamlining that experience into a single strategy versus considering the strategic direction of each department was one of her bigger challenges as a CHRO.
She not only had to streamline that strategy but also direct the various HR teams to move in one direction, she notes.
Today’s changing workforce also presents a challenge, Sexton says. In the past, employees would accept a simple explanation from leaders. But the current generation of workers increasingly seeks greater transparency and openness in response to questions, which, due to the nature of the information, isn’t always possible.
“Their response is, ‘You must be hiding something,’ ” says Sexton. “How do you provide the right level of transparency and openness and humility, but also balance it with [the fact that] there are just some places we’re not going to go and share with everybody.”
As your business and industry move quickly and the demands of your organization’s customers change on a dime, the HR function too needs to become more agile, Sexton says.
Future CHROs, as a result, will require the ability to be bold and agile, Sexton predicts.