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How can HR directors be truly effective board members?

20 Aug 2020 By Sir John Tusa

A good non-executive director should make their professional skills available but contribute far more widely than this, says Sir John Tusa

How effective can an HR director be in the workings and decision-making of a non-executive board? If the question sounds simple and you are expecting and inviting a direct answer, disappointment awaits. The answer, as I explore in my new book, On Board: The Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom, is not simple but it is important. It goes to the root of how to be effective on a board.  

An effective non-executive board will have a range of specific professional skills among its members. There is no magic about who they might be – the lawyer, the accountant, the business person, the media guru, the money raiser, the HR expert... But this is only the start of making and shaping an effective board. It will need such skills and disciplines on tap but a good board is not composed of professional quotas. A good and effective board member should make their professional skills available to the board, but are not restricted to these. 

At the University of the Arts London, a £150m-plus enterprise, I had as my vice-chair a former very senior HR director from a large corporate firm. First and foremost, she was a brilliant, active, engaged governor of the university on all its business. Her direct contributions on HR matters carried a great deal of weight but her interventions on all university matters were important, valued and weighty. To put it directly: her skill was in HR but her judgement was across the board. If we had treated her solely as ‘the HR governor’ the university would have lost her full skill, judgement and wisdom. Her expertise in chairing the university’s personnel sub-committee was absolutely invaluable. But she was appointed for her general skills and authority which she delivered marvellously.  

Not all the boards I have served on had the advantage of a director with an HR background. Not every board needed one, but some would have benefitted from such an addition. For anybody with significant HR experience who fancies the challenges of board membership – and they are real – I offer the thought that they will certainly bring their professional skills to the table but above all they will bring their whole personality. That is why it can be so rewarding.

In my experience, while every board member will have a significant specialist skill to offer, on a good board everyone is a generalist with universal responsibility. It is not only the accountant who can opine on the numbers, the lawyer on the law and so on. I was invited to join the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery because of my media background. In a dozen years as trustee, I was never directly involved in any media matters involving the gallery. I was very actively involved in all the major issues the board confronted.  

All board members are equal because they all carry equal fiduciary responsibility for the welfare and solvency of the institution. All have a responsibility to be involved in and informed about every matter that arises. There are no stupid questions on a board. Sometimes they are the most valuable ones to ask.

Almost every board would value the presence of a skilled HR director. But, to put it in an extreme way: to be effective on a board, you park your direct expertise at the door. It is not what you know that will make you a good board member; it is who you are that will count. 

Sir John Tusa is co-chairman of the European Union Youth Orchestra, chairman of Wigmore Hall and University of the Arts London, former managing director of the BBC World Service and the Barbican Arts Centre, former presenter of Newsnight and author of On Board

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