COVID-19 can break the HR director’s glass ceiling

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We are living in unprecedented times but where there is chaos and uncertainty there is also opportunity. Alongside transforming working constructs, HR leaders must grasp the chance to change how they are seen by boards and, crucially, how they see themselves.

As we see a renewed focus on people, talent and managing employees, this should be a prime opportunity for HR directors to become the CEO's most trusted adviser and even take their job.

The HRD Pathfinder Club conducted a survey in October. We have seen an increase in the last three months of female HRDs that have been elevated to more senior levels within their business. The results also showed that 47% of HRDs who responded reported a better working relationship with their CEO, and 35% with their CFO.

Interestingly only 12% reported a worse relationship, of which half said it was because the CEO had insisted employees come into work because they could not be trusted to work out of sight of their manager.

These same HRDs reported this was the tip of an iceberg of distrust from CEO to employees which was increasingly being reflected by employees taking more days sick, lower productivity and increased attrition. All but one of these HRDs are looking for a new role.

Why have things changed

Few HRDs, men or women, become CEOs, nor are they usually their CEO’s most trusted advisor. This is ironic as the people skills that HRDs are experts in are increasingly critical at every level of the organisation - especially with remote working.

The need for empathy and listening, in order to create a trusting and caring culture and to role model compassionate leadership, has never been higher at both an individual manager and board level.

And because these attributes tend to be more common amongst women than men, it means that COVID is a great opportunity for HRDs, especially female, to gain more profile, respect and admiration from their board and CEO.

I am speaking to HRDs who now have a direct line to the CEO and are seeing a virtuous circle of cause and effect. They are given more support and budget, enabling them to put into practice people initiatives that deliver improved commercial results and enhance the business, allowing for further investment in the workforce.

And all this evidence means that self limiting beliefs such as imposter syndrome that often hold women back, can be overcome.

How are HRDs reacting

Boards are beginning to recognise the need for broader development opportunities for high potential HR executives. HRDs need to ensure they can offer the appropriate skills to their leadership teams and are well versed on linking their objectives to financial and strategic KPIs.

More importantly, HRDs should draw confidence from the increased importance that boards are placing on HR and realise that their role is critical to achieving the corporate objectives of the company.

Ambitious HRDs that I have been working with have been upskilling themselves with influencing skills, advanced presentation skills and coaching skills.

As a result, these HRDs are resonating with their CEOs by linking their people skills, such as explaining the impact of employee isolation for example, to the potential impact on retention, productivity and revenue/employee.

HRDs can use COVID as an opportunity to be a businessperson first and the people expert second. That is how to win the support and confidence of your CEO and to become their most trusted advisor. The current crisis presents the HR profession with the opportunity to kick the cracks in the glass ceiling and break it.

Peter Ryding is founder of the HRD PathFinder Club.

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