Stepping up: How to become an effective HR board director

The position of director is typically a highly fulfilling one but, allied to the satisfaction it can deliver to post-holder, there is considerable additional responsibility that also comes with the job.

Directors, of course, act through their boards which exist to ensure the interests of shareholders and stakeholders are fulfilled by organisations, and the extent of their authority is outlined in the company’s Articles of Association.

And it’s probably fair to say that at most public companies, the most senior members in charge of delivering this remit have tended to come from a financial background supported by other disciplines from across the company.

While this may be regarded as custom and practice for many, there is a strong argument to say that HR managers – with their ability to understand a company’s culture and the effective deployment of resources – also have an important role to play at ‘the top table’ in delivering the company strategy.

So, if sitting on a board is a personal career ambition what strategies could help you attain your goal, what value can you bring and what might face you when you arrive?

Each will find their own path to a board-level appointment, and this may be eased by talent pipelining within an organisation, but to be considered as having ‘board potential’ it is important to be recognised by existing directors as someone who is both easy to work with and seeks to improve the organisation as well as add value.

For some, the chance to become a voluntary trustee or non-executive director for smaller organisations offers the opportunity to gain valuable experience in preparation for promotion.

Once appointed, an HR director can bring considerable value to a board through knowledge of the employees and their skills, co-ordinating talent spotting and succession planning.

As Ruth Gillespie, former HR director of Reed Business Information, and currently lead tutor for the IoD’s, “The Director’s Role in Leading the Organisation” course advises: “HR directors recognise that business strategies and people strategies are intrinsically linked and ensure they are developed together.

She continues: “Articulating a company’s vision, mission and values is also essential to provide clarity to employees and other stakeholders. HR directors can prepare comprehensive communication plans, including meaningful dialogue. Additionally they oversee corporate values, and drive culture change initiatives to secure new behaviours, to maintain business performance.

“Ensuring the company has effective reward structures, related to individual and departmental performance targets and behaviours is another HR value-add. Successfully proposing appropriate performance management systems is crucial for staff engagement.”

Finally, Ruth says: “HR professionals are well placed to assess organisational capability, reviewing a) competence levels of employees, b) company culture and values, c) resource and systems capacity. Timely recommendations in each area can avoid shortfalls and disasters.”

Once appointed, those who do make the step up to the board are often surprised by the complexity and scope of the job to be done. Not only must they continue to oversee their functional teams but they also now need to have a general overview of a company’s operational activities and corporate governance, including an understanding of its exposure to risk and of its strategic direction. It is a challenging task, particularly with the huge diversity of large organisations which makes full and proper oversight extremely difficult.

Despite the challenges they face and the array of legal responsibilities that come with the role, all too often new directors are given precious little support and guidance in how to ‘step up’ before joining.

For these reasons, the value of inductions, mentoring and high quality professional development for directors cannot be underestimated and should be considered an essential component in equipping first-time directors (and indeed be a requirement for established directors), ensuring they are up to date on the political, social and the ever changing business landscape.

By : Roger Barker

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