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Getting heard at the top

If you want to be heard at board level, you have to think like a board member. Getting marked out as a rising star may mean putting your head above the parapet. Stephan Stern reports

Get strategic, HR managers are constantly being urged. Be relevant, be businesslike, add value. And, by the way, if you havent got the ear of the board, forget it. Until HR is heard at the highest level it will remain misunderstood and undervalued.

All good and familiar advice, of course, but how do you get the attention of the board in the first place? What marks a rising star out as a potential director? And how can you develop your career, with the aim of getting on to the board, without neglecting your existing responsibilities?

It is all about making yourself indispensable, says Jane Clarke, director of management consultants Nicholson McBride, and author of the book, Office Politics. You have to be seen to be making an important contribution. Perhaps in the past people in HR were not so good at doing that, Clarke says, but if you make clear what the benefits to the business are in your work it will be noticed.

It is a question of moving beyond the role of a mere technician, and displaying leadership, says Clive Morton, head of the Morton Partnership and co-author of the newly-published Leading HR, making important interventions, taking risks and putting your head above the parapet.

This doesnt mean that you can neglect your core job. Obviously you have to have credibility, Morton says, and that means performance. You have to show you understand the needs of the business. And dont neglect the support of your peer group, Morton adds. They can be advocates for you too. Some HR managers work to win the support of their CEOs, Morton says, but fail to retain the goodwill of their peers.

Struggling against a corporate culture that is unsympathetic to the very concept of people management can make the challenge greater. But if you have won the argument internally for the people agenda, you are free to move on to the bigger corporate picture. Morton himself became director for business development at Anglian Water having previously been its HR director.

Showing that you understand the dilemmas of top leadership is also essential. Leadership involves choices, seeing beyond black and white dilemmas and understanding the shades of grey in situations, Morton says. Show you understand the bigger picture and not just the boiler room.

Make the transition from basic employee relations where HR managers traditionally start out, and make a difference to your organisations change management and overall strategy. Demonstrate that you have the attitude to go with your ambition.

HR with attitude, as some have labelled it, needs HR managers who will stand up and be counted. This is an important and positive challenge. One of the old-fashioned views of the discipline was that HR managers were very good at saying no, says Clarke. Of course thats unfair. If you are helping the business to achieve its objectives attitudes will change.

Its a very sad fact that there are so few HR directors on the boards of major companies, Clarke adds. But, she says, it doesnt have to stay that way. Find out where the power lies, be helpful and positive, and politically astute, she says. The key to the executive washroom could yet be yours.