Thoughts about hr and management in the real world – extra information I couldn't fit in my books!.

How many NZ CEO’s have worked in HR?

This is a bit of a different blog for me. I decided to do some big data (or perhaps it’s only medium sized).

After I co-blogged with Richard Westney on why CEO’s prefer blondes, it seemed to spark a chain reaction. Amanda Sterling wrote about just because I’m young and quiet, doesn’t mean I’m stupid and David D’Souza blogged on the Sexy Women of HR. Many comments and discussions ensured. All this from wondering about whether CEO’s really get what HR can do and are they hiring the right people to deliver.

Could part of the issue be none of them have ever worked in HR or managed an HR function (even at an exec level?).  I decided to look into the top 50 NZX companies CEO’s and see if I could find the answer.

My CEO analysis

I looked at a number of things:

  • Gender
  • The degree or qualification they had
  • How long they worked in their current company
  • How long they’d worked in their industry
  • Whether they’d worked in an HR role

This analysis was conducted from publicly available information. I was interested to find that I had a 2nd and 3rd connection on LinkedIn with many of the CEO’s so could check there (although some weren’t on LinkedIn). I have only personally worked with two of these CEO’s. One company had no information on it’s CEO so the figures you’ll see add up to 49.


I stopped with the gender comparison once I had all the names. There was only one woman on the list and she was retiring this month. So 100% men. Good start.

HR background

Next up, have any of them worked in HR?

Not that I could see. Or in the words of the NZ rapper Scribe: Not many, if any.

It was possible that a couple of them had been in exec level roles that had HR reporting to them. The only CEO I know of who has been an HR person is Barbara Chapman, CEO of ASB who was Head of HR for CBA. But ASB weren’t on my list. So it was a zero there.

Then I looked at the qualifications and background and there were some surprises.


Not all CEO’s were accountants. It still won the race (11 CEO’s), but close behind were the engineers (9 CEO’s). 4 had law degrees and 6 had business/commerce. Many didn’t any qualifications listed (16 CEO’s). Does this mean they never attended university? Or just went somewhere so awful they’re embarrassed to admit it? Interestingly some of the most successful CEO’s in the world never finished their university degree (Steve Jobs for one).

Of those that had a qualification I could find: 20 had an undergrad degree, 11 had their Masters and 2 a PhD.

Industry experience

I was expecting that CEO’s would have worked across a number of industries to have built excellent business acumen, but actually that wasn’t the case at all. 37 had worked in ONE industry only for all their careers, 9 had a mix and 2 I couldn’t find enough about their background to tell. That’s 75% who have been in the same industry sometimes for 35 years or more.

Company experience

I also thought that having a mix of companies that you’ve worked for would be key. I was wrong.

  • 30% have worked for their current company for 10 years or more.
  • 10% have worked at their current company for 20 years or more (David Hiscoe has been with ANZ for 32 years, Michael Daniell with F&P for 35 years and John Fellet with SKY for 23 years).
  • A further 10% have worked at another company for 10 years or more.
  • A further 14% have worked at another company for 20 years or more.

So what does all this mean?

To be a CEO it appears your best chances are to be a man. You’ll need to have worked in the same industry for your whole life and it helps if you’ve worked at one company for at least 10 years at some stage in your career. Having a bachelors in Accounting or Engineering is best. You’ll come from having worked in operational general management roles. Having worked in HR is irrelevant.

Perhaps that why CEO’s aren’t employing the right people for senior HR roles – because they’ve never experienced what it’s about.

At Elephant we’re trying to change that, starting with our HR Game Changer conference. If you want to transform HR, make sure you check it out. And one day, not only will we have more women on the list, but let’s hope we’ll have some CEO’s who have an HR background. Rather than not many, if any.


5 comments on “How many NZ CEO’s have worked in HR?

  1. hrmannz
    April 27, 2014

    Reblogged this on Up the Down Escalator and commented:
    Some further thoughts from Angela following last weekends post we co-authored. Interesting data and explains a lot about HR’s position in the corporate pecking order.

  2. george p
    April 27, 2014

    Interesting analysis. Thanks for taking the time to do this. If they were all owner managers it would make more sense – to me at least. No women does not reflect well on diversity clearly. Thought there would be at least some… The lack of other company exp is almost more worrying. My exp is mostly overseas and there professional managers including the CEO were expected to have a broad business bacground. Must be hard to keep energy and interest after 20 years or so of same old… Would be interesting to see if the feeling is that these companies have performed in lines with similar ones where a more diverse and broader experienced CEO was more valued. My instinctive view would be that you would not get much change from a CEO who knew little else.
    Good post, hope others put there views in.

    • angelaatkins
      April 27, 2014

      Hi George, thank you for your comments. Yes I was really surprised with the lack of diversity of company experience. I can understand same industry experience for depth of knowledge but how do you get new ideas or change from so long in the same place? These were the 50 top valued companies. It might be different for biggest in employee numbers, or for highest performers. I hope others comment too as I couldn’t find much research on this (I’m sure it must be out there!).

  3. Channon Stewart
    April 28, 2014

    Really interesting reading Angela, and I agree it does seem to explain a lot about where HR sits in the corporate pecking order.

  4. katc1ark
    April 30, 2014

    Reblogged this on hrworkingmum and commented:
    Wow… Haven’t heard of a summary of NZ CEO’s backgrounds before – it’s a bit of a worry. :S

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