CEO’s prefer blondes

This is a discussion that has turned into a post. I was challenged to write it and I do like a challenge, so here goes!

I am joined in this post by Angela Atkins. You can follow here own awesome blog here. In a recent conversation with Angela about how HR needs to change, she said “we have to get the business to want HR to deliver and know what to ask for. Too many CEO’s still hire young blonde girls into HRM/HRD roles because they don’t have the experience to challenge them.”

Now I know this is a provocative statement. And of course, it is also a sweeping generalization – actually, many of them are brunettes.

But in a country the size of New Zealand where many people find themselves in sole charge HR positions in small to medium sized businesses, there is more than a grain of truth here. I have seen a few junior colleagues over the years go off into sole charge roles, working for a CEO or CFO when they are still a little wet behind the ears and perhaps have only a year or two of experience.

I always advise them against accepting roles like that. Early in your career, I think you are going to learn far more with an experienced team and manager around you. A great opportunity or a poisoned chalice?

I mentioned the conversation with Angela to another senior HR person recently who challenged me to write about what she sees as a massive issue. She said she left a previous organisation because she was working for an HR Director who was not experienced enough for the role and couldn’t manage the team. Her strong belief was that the company leadership team liked the HRD because she was “easy on the eye and didn’t challenge them.” And before you ask, the person who said that is one of the least bitchy people I know.

I also spoke recently with a young HR person in a sole charge role at a big name company. When I asked her how the job was going, she bemoaned the fact that she works for a CFO who “doesn’t really get HR.”

But back to Angela, this is her perspective:

Angela“Now before you read any further, I better admit that I am blonde and I was one of the young women appointed into a role that I wasn’t qualified for. It was as HR Manager for PostiePlus Group. I was 25 years old. I had 4 years HR experience. Over the years I was with PPGL we went from having 50 stores and 500 employees, to acquiring Rendells, Baby City and Arbuckles and having 1000 employees. The role entailed me building a full HR function, an entire L&D programme, working through a public listing, going through several union negotiations and much more.

Here’s where I’m torn. I learned a HUGE amount from that role. I think I got 10 years’ experience in 4. It also taught me a lot about managing people and about managing myself. Working 12 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week for 6 months was not good for me and I have never done it again since. Part of that happening was I didn’t have the experience to draw on. If I had the same role now, I would be able to deliver much more value. But of course I would be far more expensive. I fully believe that the CEO didn’t want someone who would challenge him and wanted to pay half the salary the role was worth. I saw the other candidates applications. Most were men. All had 10 years+ HR experience on me.

Later I contracted in a corporate HR team with a CEO I knew didn’t understand HR so I didn’t apply when the HRM role came up. Who was appointed? A young HR woman with 3 years’ experience. Same situation again. Now these are great roles to learn from, but at what cost to the business? At what cost to the CEO actually being challenged and having to make hard decisions? Maybe why this is why we’re still having these discussions about what HR delivers – because our CEO’s and senior leaders don’t understand it. Until they want us to have these skills and they’re up for it making them better as a company, I think young, blonde women will continue to be appointed.”

I always say that organizations get the HR they deserve. If you think I’m attacking the young, usually female HR practitioners that end up in roles they aren’t equipped to do you are wrong. This is about CEO’s and other business leaders who want a nice compliant HR function that asks few questions, challenges few assumptions and just makes sure people get paid on time. Up to date policies and accurate contract generation is their measure of HR success.

And that’s the real issue here. This is one of the reasons why leadership in this country is so average, why many of our organizations are so unproductive and why our profession lacks credibility. This is the HR we allow to happen.

And Angela? Well, she’s doing something about it. If you haven’t already heard about it then you need to check out the HR Game Changer Conference she is organizing to reinvent HR and transform it so CEO’s and senior leaders are our biggest advocates and finally understand HR. This is shaping up to be a conference that truly lives up to its name. Check it out at

15 thoughts on “CEO’s prefer blondes

  1. Amanda Sterling says:

    Ooh that’s a doozy of a statement to make. But it also makes me mad. Like seriously. Not at you, at the system.

    The generalisation discredits those of us who have a brain.

    CEOs want to hire the young, inexperienced who don’t challenge.

    Well they also don’t take seriously those who are young, blonde, intelligent and do challenge.

    Can I introduce another angle to this too? You don’t have to be loud and out there to be assertive. It seems like a curve ball but ‘young, blonde, nice’ seems to equal ‘inexperienced, dumb, pushover’.

    What about considering individual differences, strengths and their contribution to productivity?

    1. hrmannz says:

      You and I have had the discussion about the power and qualities of introverts and your own piece in response to this one sums that up very nicely Amanda.

  2. A View from a Bridge says:

    I don’t really see this as being about gender. I’ve seen young men being placed into HR roles for which they are woefully inexperienced for. The reason? They won’t challenge the status quo. I think it goes back to the age-old issue of HR having to fight for a seat at the table. As HR professionals, we do need to challenge, to ask ‘why?’, and to be champions for the whole workforce, not just management – even it makes us unpopular.

    Great post. Thought provoking. I look forward to watching the transformation ‘over the pond’.

    1. hrmannz says:

      Apart from the fact that your blog also has a Chameleons-inspired title (nice work), you make a very good point. This is really about experience not gender.

  3. daviddsouza180 says:

    Lots of research on the link between female attractiveness and success. You can view it as localised competitive advantage or discrimination. Thought experiment – ask a man (who you respect enough to give you an honest answer) how much of a pay hit he’d take to work in a company where all his other colleagues were highly attractive women. Assume skills/capability is now worse than it is currently… I don’t think it is fair to assert that CEO’s want to hire young people who won’t challenge. They want to hire people that make them feel successful – being in charge of beautiful young people really helps them feel like a success.

    1. hrmannz says:

      Thanks for the re-blog. Some interesting thoughts here David. I thought this post might polarise a bit and get people talking. The really good CEO’s hire people who they think are smarter than themselves, therefore proving the fact that no one is actually as smart as them.

      1. daviddsouza180 says:

        Ah… but isn’t it nice to have pretty people about? And clients like pretty people too. People underestimate the value of pretty…I want my food to taste nice, but it’s even better if it is well presented… And lots of other sentiments like that which people will be offended by but have a bit of truth. We are people in and out of work. People do sex.

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