How can HR get in the Boardroom? HR’s lack of influence at Board-level isn’t anything new; it’s something that has been debated for many years now. So why is the top table so reluctant to give them a seat?
If we set aside the fact that changes in Board composition mean that there are fewer positions at the top table for functional heads, there are still opportunities for HR professionals to carve out greater influence at board and C-Suite level.

Looking at the executive search market for senior HR professionals, there is no doubt that anyone remotely credible will have recognised that it’s now critical to have a strong grasp of business issues. It’s now taken as read that if you want to progress, that box marked ‘commercial understanding’ needs to be ticked.

HR Leaders Need A Strategic Perspective

That said, what many senior HR professionals still lack is a strategic perspective. It’s not enough just to ‘understand the business’. These days, executives are expected to be strategic thinkers who can grasp complex problems and offer credible and creative solutions and design thinking around people issues. That means staying abreast of what’s going on outside your area of direct expertise, even outside your sector and outside your business. Therefore, an understanding of market dynamics and the competitive landscape is essential – not just looking at best practice in HR. Keeping up with the latest innovations, disruptive business models, and having a real understanding of how transformation works in a complex environment has become critical.

Putting aside the debate about whether strategic thinking is inherent or can be developed, in my experience, some people are hardwired to think strategically and others less so – they’re more adept operationally. As a result, we are seeing more senior-level appointments where an HR professional with strategic strengths will work alongside someone with a more operational focus.

CEOs Want Leadership Over Functional Expertise

It’s also very telling that we’ve seen some recent HRD appointments where CEOs have taken the decision to put business leaders into Group HR roles – backed up by strong technical experts – to provide strategic leadership, rather than functional expertise. This could be divisive for the function, but possibly the start of a developing trend if HR doesn’t raise its strategic bar.

Increasingly, individuals who have functional experience outside of HR, but have moved into HR roles are also sought after for the breadth of additional experience that CEOs value. Many high-potential HRDs that we see started their career outside of the function before moving across.

International Experience Still Ranks Highly

There are also other areas to consider such as genuine international experience. Clients continue to ask for senior HR candidates who not only have cross-cultural awareness and experience of managing teams internationally but who also have a solid track record in influencing business across continents. They want people who have substantial on-the-ground experience of living and working internationally – having an international outlook is not enough.

Finally, of course, there’s the business impact that technology is having on the HR function. Strategic HR leaders understand that technology enablers such as predictive analytics, ‘peoplemetrics’ and big data will have a profound effect on what HR does and how it operates. Staying on top of this and utilising it as a strategic tool and not just a justification for short-term cost management will give credibility at the Board-level. Ideally, this will open up new career paths for talented individuals who have strong strategic and analytical skills, who thrive in environments of transformation and change and so have what it takes to win a place on the Boards of the future.

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