How to get to the top table, and stay there

At the latest HR in the Boardroom event, board expert Helen Pitcher shared her top tips for ensuring HRDs are effective at the very highest levels.

"In an ideal world boards should be looking to people with HR skills who can contribute to  really important and key areas. In reality they often don’t.”

This significant wake-up call to HRDs hoping to soon hold more sway at boardroom level was delivered by chairman of Advanced Boardroom Excellence, and recent OBE recipient, Helen Pitcher at HR magazine’s most recent HR in the Boardroom event.

Those “key areas” boards are currently grappling with include remuneration strategy, succession planning, culture, tone, ethics and values, and diversity. All of these preoccupations “fall squarely within the HR remit” said Pitcher, meaning that now should in theory be the ideal time for HRDs to step up to the plate.

Pitcher added that females within HR could be highly valuable to organisations looking to widen board diversity. “Certainly within the HR community there are, as there are in other functions, more females than there are males. So it is a very rich pool to draw from, providing HRDs position themselves appropriately,” she said.

So how can HRDs finally make the leap? And how can they be truly effective and hang on to their seat when they get there? 

Speak the language of the business

“I have heard many people say that the quality of HR professionals out there is woeful. Fortunately I can say I’ve met some very good HRDs,” said Pitcher, reporting that the difference lies in whether the HRD is prepared to “speak the language of the business” rather than a jargon-heavy “language of their own”. 

Avoid operating in a silo

In order to speak the language of the business, HR professionals will need to regularly interact with other departments across the organisation, advised Pitcher.

“Once you are sitting on a board you are actually the custodian or guardian of the total enterprise for all stakeholders,” she said. “So you need to be able to look over the fence and ask intelligent questions about other areas of the business, so that you are assisting your fellow board members to make the right decision rather than having group-think”.

Pitcher said HR professionals need, in order to discover different perspectives on the business, to learn how to network not just with other HR professionals but with people from all functions. 

Gain financial nous 

“Softer skills HRDs should have in abundance. I say ‘should’ because it’s not always the case,” said Pitcher. “In terms of the broader skills they require they do need to be financially literate and not all HRDs are.”

She said that HRDs should consider taking on projects with financial elements to gain this understanding. “If they can’t do that they can go and spend some time with the CFO of the organisation, asking them: ‘What should I be looking at? What questions should I be asking? What will tell me if this business is on track or off track?’”

Pitcher added: “Economic and political understanding is so important particularly when you’re sitting on the board of a global business. You have to be able to read that landscape appropriately.” 

Avoid sitting in the CEO’s pocket

“Sadly what will often happen is HR will position itself very closely with the CEO and that can lead to a number of issues,” said Pitcher. “One is that it can lead to people not telling them the true story, because they want to filter what goes back the CEO. It’s less likely to happen if HR are NEDs on boards because they will not be as close to the executive.

“Nonetheless they should have the skills to have realistic and relevant discussions with the executive, not only about the business issues, but also about some of the behavioural constraints that might be stopping for instance change happening within the organisation on a major scale

To find out more about HR in the Boardroom, HR magazine's exclusive development programme for HR directors who want to inrease their influence at board level, visit the website or contact