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Why more HR directors should be on boards

29 Jan 2020 By Oliver Cummings

HRDs are well-placed for executive, non-executive and trustee roles, says Oliver Cummings, but they are still hugely underrepresented

Fantastic HR directors have a top-down, bottom-up view of how their organisation operates. They can explain the roles of everyone from the data analytics intern to the chief marketing officer. They have a comprehensive understanding of all the rules and regulations that the company must adhere to – they most likely drafted them. And they’re on top of the latest government legislation.   

They are familiar with the company pension, share and bonus schemes, and are responsible for managing what is often the largest chunk of an organisation’s budget: payroll. They oversee the human costs and gains resulting from company takeovers and play a vital part in succession planning.

HR directors are responsible for the happiness of the entire workforce, often across multiple sites and even countries. Answering directly to the CEO, there is no one better positioned to read the pulse of a business than the HR director. 

They tick pretty much every box in every executive director, non-executive director (NED) and trustee role specification. So why are we not seeing more HR directors on boards? There are three reasons:

1. HR people are not on the radar of boards

Boards do not realise the potential of HR directors and how much they can contribute to a board. Given the choice of someone with a law, accountancy or sales background and someone with an HR background with experience of a similar organisation, boards traditionally opt for the legal, figures or commercial person because they fit with their idea of an ‘ideal’ board member. The fact that this contradicts with the mantra of many boards that people are their most important asset, doesn’t seem to compute.

Fortunately, education is going some way to confronting this wrongly held belief system and the unconscious biases that boards bring to application analysis and interviews. More forward-looking boards are accepting the evidence that diversity of talent and experience drives better results. Crucially though, the more HR directors find their way on to boards, the quicker this outdated myth will be exploded. 

2. HR people don’t apply enough for board roles

HR directors don’t apply for board roles because they see no demand for this. And they are rarely approached either directly by boards or indirectly by headhunters. 

To break this cycle, HR directors must be proactive. Start networking – don’t wait for that tap on the shoulder. Have the confidence to put yourself forward. Own your journey and don’t give up at the first rejection. You know more than anyone that securing a role isn’t easy, especially when you have a mould to break. 

3. HR people have an image problem

HR directors are too often wrongly perceived as dull, rule-making bureaucrats as opposed to data-driven innovative leaders at the heart of a business. The fact that there are very few high-profile HR professionals on boards acting as role models for up-and-coming talent in the sector doesn’t help challenge this image. But it is slowly changing.

Winning places on boards

HR directors are finding seats on boards, although they are often supplementary roles as NEDs or trustees that they undertake alongside their main job. 

It is indisputable: HR directors have a unique skillset that more than meets the requirements for many NED, trustee and often executive roles. 

If I can impress one thing on any HR director reading this, it’s to start putting yourself forward for NED and trustee positions. This will build your confidence and reputation. It will also raise awareness of the profession’s valuable contribution to boards and subsequently, I hope, lead to more openings at the executive level too. 

Oliver Cummings is chief operating officer at Nurole

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