HR Strategy/CHRO Articles

Take the Spotlight

Even with HR’s recent ascension in organisational importance, leaders are still having to prove that they deserve a seat on the board.

By Simon Kent

HR’s place at the board level is crucial to the current and future performance of any organisation. But what about those who don’t agree? How can HR cement its place in the C-suite?

Craig McCoy has spent many years at the top of his profession, delivering HR at a director level for diverse organisations. An interim director by choice, he generally arrives to take organisations through a time of transition. His starting point for HR directors is simply to go beyond the HR remit. “You need to be in tune with the business,” he says. “You need to be commercially minded, financially literate, and able to read a balance sheet. You should not feel as though you have to contribute only to people or HR issues but take part of the cabinet responsibility of the board, having a view on both the day-to-day operation of the business and on strategy.”

The importance of understanding and contributing to the strategic agenda is echoed by Terri Lecheva, partner at search firm TritonExec, which hires leadership for digital transformation at global firms. “As a CHRO and board member, HR leaders should focus on driving measurable results and demonstrating the impact of HR initiatives on the organisation’s bottom line,” she says. “By aligning HR metrics with strategic objectives and presenting evidence of success, they can build credibility and earn the respect of their fellow board members.”

Lecheva explains that the successful CHROs she works with understand the wider business objectives and how they translate into HR initiatives—both in terms of highlevel strategy and execution. “We see many HR leaders who can think big picture but can’t lead a team through to impact or vice versa,” she says. “Or they are very tactical but can’t talk the same language as the board.” Central to being able to achieve this higher-level impact is the ability to back up ideas and work with data. Data demonstrates real-world impact and makes a far better impression than using HR jargon.

“Being well-prepared with data and figures is essential for HR leaders who are at the board level, as data-driven insights can help support proposals, decisions, and strategic initiatives,” agrees Sophie Bryan, founder and chief workplace culture consultant at Ordinarily Different, a consultancy and training organisation. “This will demonstrate your credibility and show that you base your recommendations and analysis on factual evidence.” Being able to communicate the impact of HR initiatives in financial terms will also help earn the respect and attention of fellow board members.

When in place, Bryan believes HR leaders should find a balance between making a big difference and exercising influence from the sidelines. It can be tricky, but it’s essential to prove oneself in this position and know when and how to exert influence. “While it’s crucial to showcase the value and impact of HR initiatives, being too forceful or aggressive might not be effective in a board setting,” she explains. “Your best bet is to focus on building relationships, aligning your goals with the strategic goals of the organisation, and effectively communicating the potential benefits of HR initiatives so that you can drive change and gain influence over time.”

Jane Lockwood of Daemon technology consultancy was head of talent and operations for the business, then became its COO two years ago. Her approach is to bring different thinking to organisations. “Come up with new and innovative ideas that can improve the company based on robust data,” she advises. “This means being creative and thinking outside the box, and then being able to implement people-based ideas successfully. This can yield excellent engagement and ultimately financial results.”

With the emphasis again falling on being data-driven, Lockwood notes this helps leaders understand the current situation, improve decision-making, and demonstrate impact. “The purpose of data and analytics is less about impressing fellow board members, but about highlighting impact and ensuring alignment,” she says.

For those aspiring to take the lead in organisations, McCoy says it is never too early to start planning out many career goals. He advises HR professionals to seek out new projects and responsibilities that take them out of their comfort zones, give them first-hand experiences of business-oriented tasks, and help them even if that means going to different sectors.

“There’s a lot to be said for having a secondment outside the HR function,” he says. “And some of the most effective leaders are those who have worked across disciplines and sectors, so they’ve got breadth of experiences.” Taking this wider approach also opens professionals up to more opportunities and the chance to raise their profiles, whether that’s with a current employer or in the wider industry. Accreditation is also important to be recognised as an experienced HR professional, and winning an occasional award along the way will also impress.

For those seeking to convince the board that HR should be there alongside finance and operations, McCoy says there needs to be a clear and watertight reason for this representation and that it will bring benefits across the entire organisation. Achieving a board-level position will only happen if there is something new and valuable brought to the top-level team.

“If the board is considering putting HR on the board for the first time, they’ll ask if you’re just looking after a process or if you’re doing something more (like) enhancing the brand or the company culture,” says McCoy.

Getting the balance right to convince the board of HR’s rightful place and capability to deliver is not a straightforward process, but the function has been steadily impacting businesses in every sector, so they’re at least halfway there.

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