HR Most Influential 2018: The top of the tree

The latest HRMI rankings were compiled in a significant year for the profession, with those making the lists demonstrating the skills needed to deal with the big HR issues hitting the news

This time last year the name Harvey Weinstein was only just crashing onto the news agenda. Gender pay reporting had yet to reach its frantic, last-minute (for some) filing crescendo. The collapse of Carillion and the Financial Reporting Council’s (FRC) new corporate governance code were both still in the offing.

So a lot has happened over the past year in terms of big, squarely HR-related news – presenting HR professionals with plenty to keep up with.

For Helen Pitcher, chairman of Advanced Boardroom Excellence and one of HR magazine’s expert panel helping to compile our HR Most Influential (HRMI) practitioners ranking each year, this represents not just a huge challenge for HR, but also a huge opportunity in terms of influence.

“It’s been a really pivotal year for HR professionals in the sense that all of the issues boards are facing now fall very firmly into the HR space; so culture, succession planning, gender pay gaps… they’re all the bailiwick of HR,” she says.

“So there has never been a better time for really good HR people to say ‘Look, this is our area of expertise, we can be a good partner to the CEO, the chairman and the board’, because it’s very difficult for a board to get the feel for culture and tone in an organisation, for example [without the help of HR].”

‘Really good’ HR people will have been working on the kinds of people issues now rocketing up the boardroom agenda for a long while, adds Pitcher. Meaning they are ready and waiting with the kind of expertise and answers that are now being sought from their function – perhaps in some instances for the first time.

“HR professionals should be responding by making very plain to their boards of directors how they can help with all of these key issues,” says Pitcher. “Because it’s really now that HR can get much closer to the chairman, not just on remuneration issues but on much broader issues boards are grappling with.”

“One of the things we often come across, with organisations from pretty much every industry, is feedback that it’s difficult to make the sell with certain HR initiatives,” agrees Tom Hellier, director and GB practice lead for rewards at Willis Towers Watson, parent company to LifeSight, HR Most Influential 2018 sponsor.

He explains that headline issues are the perfect way of getting in on conversations and into rooms that HR hasn’t been able to access in the past.

“What things like gender pay gap reporting have done is raise the profile of an issue that HR has been working on for ages, but in a way that really forces organisations to sit up and take note,” he says.

The best HR directors, however, will already be part of these conversations and in these rooms. And they will have got there, says owner and partner at Strategic Dimensions and fellow HRMI practitioner judging panellist Mike Haffenden, through knowing their organisation intimately, and possessing strong general business nous.

This is particularly critical in today’s tough and uncertain operating climate, and will become even more so post-Brexit, says Haffenden.

Yes, 2018 has thrown up many big, headline-grabbing challenges. But HR directors will still struggle to start the conversation around diversity (for example) if they haven’t got a proven track record of nailing business-focused HR, he says.

“It has to be that HR starts with the business need,” says Haffenden. “That’s often all about innovation: how are we becoming more innovative as a business, as a nation? And what’s HR’s piece in that? It’s about education, motivation, how you design organisations, role allocation…”

“I think HR’s got an enormous role to play in productivity and performance,” he adds. “That’s becoming even more important, not just because we’re not good enough as a nation at the moment, but because whatever happens post-Brexit we’ll need to be better again.”

This doesn’t just apply to private sector HR, he adds, but public and third too.

Hellier agrees that some of the best HR directors he has worked with have been those with wider operational understanding. “The most successful HRDs I’ve seen haven’t necessarily started in HR but found their way through myriad routes,” he says. “They might have started out in the commercial world, had sales experience, worked in a more general management capacity or in finance. But either way, having a broader awareness of how the organisation runs is absolutely fundamental.”

Most influential practitioners

Which brings us to our HR Most Influential practitioners criteria, and those who this year ranked highest against these. Depth and breadth of experience and responsibility for other areas outside of HR might be our eighth factor but, as highlighted above, it’s of critical importance.

Once again HR magazine worked with research partner Ashridge Business School to apply a set of eight criteria, devised in 2016 by Ashridge, to a longlist of FTSE 100 and non-FTSE HRDs, discussing each name in depth with our panel of experienced headhunters and industry experts.

This year we also gave all contenders (both on the practitioner and thinkers side) an opportunity to put forward a few pointers of ‘evidence’ under each criteria, ensuring we were in possession of all the facts when it came to whether they hold NED positions, sit on sector-specific boards, etc. Through this process the top practitioners in each industry were drawn to form the HRMI sector lists. From these the overall top 40 practitioners were chosen.

Our rankings celebrate those HR directors scoring most highly against a range of factors of influence, covering not just track record of successful outcomes, but also external influence, developing others, sharing with the HR community, and – as outlined above – other responsibilities besides HR.

Such wider business acumen is epitomised by the individual ranked at number one this year – someone who has been a steady stalwart of the HRMI top 10 for many years. HR director at Telefónica UK Ann Pickering really is “a consummate professional and knows her business inside-out,” says Pitcher.

She epitomises that breed of HRD operating alongside their CEO long before HR issues rose up their boss’s agenda this year. “She is the confidante of the CEO,” says Pitcher. “She’s got that broader remit beyond just HR as chief operating officer there. She has very broad influence across the business; people trust her and so they seek out her advice.”

She adds: “While she’s very visible and shares a lot with the HR community, in the business she just quietly gets on and does stuff.”

Consistent sharing with the profession is something those taking the number two and three spots this year – unmoved from 2017 – also epitomise.

At number two once again is Althea Loderick, strategic director for resources at Brent Council. Loderick is, like Pickering, someone whose role stretches far beyond HR (her job spans finance and procurement, property and FM, HR and OD, IT, legal services, customer services, and registrars and commercial services). But she keeps her HR remit front and centre.

Loderick is commended this year again for her work beyond Brent, including her tireless mentoring of others coming up through the ranks, and her work supporting several police forces with their senior direct entry schemes.

Taking the number three spot again this year is someone who has had a particularly challenging time as a result of 2018’s wider climate and media agenda. And yet according to anyone in the know, group HR director at the BBC Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth is managing historic gender pay issues (and many other less-newsworthy HR challenges) with incredible aplomb – and still finding plenty of time somehow to give back to the profession.

“The challenge she’s faced in the course of this year is a horrible one,” Willis Towers Watson’s Hellier says, referring to the BBC being obliged (under the terms of its new Royal Charter) to disclose the pay of those earning more than £150,000 in its annual report – and the subsequent media uproar about this. Hellier explains that the flack the BBC has received is largely unjustified, with its gender pay gap figures as a whole sitting below national and industry averages.

“Valerie’s done a very good job in a very high-profile organisation,” agrees Haffenden. “Everybody likes her; you won’t find many people with a bad word to say about her, which I think is a strong characteristic for an HR director. And I do think people look to her to take their lead.”

Most influential thinkers

And so we come to the other, no less important, side of HRMI: our thinkers ranking. To compile it, HR magazine invited a panel of top HR directors to debate a longlist of names in relation to our six criteria of thinker influence. Just as for our practitioners lists, this year we also asked all thinkers on our radar for pointers on their influence over the past year.

Again HR issues exploding into the public and media consciousness emerged as a key theme, with several new additions to the list reflecting this. Most notably making it onto the 2018 ranking in this vein: Helena Morrissey for her work as founder of 30% Club and author of A Good Time to be a Girl; and Megan Reitz for her work on speaking truth to power. Our panel was impressed by both thinkers seizing upon the current spotlight on sexual harassment as an opportunity to push for change.

Other new names this year reflect the changing way HR thought leadership is consumed by HR professionals, and so the way thinkers exert influence. This year’s panel of HRDs felt strongly that our HRMI Thinkers 2018 list should reflect the growing influence of a handful of highly prolific and expert bloggers-cum-consultants – including technology editor at LRP Steve Boese, and author, speaker and prolific tweeter Meghan Biro.

“Age isn’t everything but I do think – in the same way as there are people who are automatically using computers from age three now – that younger people’s brains are becoming wired slightly differently,” comments one HRD panellist in reference to the slightly different way younger colleagues are influenced by HR thinkers.

“There’s a difference in speed,” she adds. “I think you need both [shorter pieces and longer studies and journal articles].

It’s about how you take the best of both. Because if someone in a blog mentions something really interesting, you might then go deeper and read about it in more detail.”

And yet also a key theme this year was the importance of working consistently and tirelessly in a certain area of HR until the message truly hits home. It’s an approach taken by this year’s top-three-ranked thinkers, and particularly strongly by our number one most influential thinker: founder of Quality and Equality Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge – a key figure in driving the emergence over the years of organisational development (OD) in HR circles.

“She’s not afraid to tell the truth year after year after year. She’s still pushing,” enthuses one HRD panellist. “There’s a resilience to her; she still manages to stay at the cutting edge and challenging everything. And she has such generosity of spirit; she really wants to build the capability of others.”

In at number two is someone new to the list in 2017, who could easily have fallen off again this year had he not continued to work so passionately and generously to embed the suggestions first made in his high-profile review of modern employment, published in July 2017. Instead our panel praised chief executive of the RSA Matthew Taylor’s continued commitment to those incredibly topical urgent issues of the gig economy, what constitutes good work, and how this should be measured.

“Something over the past couple of years, with Brexit and Trump etc, has really shifted and he’s really picked up the tone of what’s going on,” comments one panellist, praising Taylor’s “impact on how other people think about something and approach it”, and his impressive personal influence on a whole range of stakeholders.

Our number-three-ranked HR thinker, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London Rob Briner, was praised by our panel for his unwavering passion and energy in taking the importance of evidence-based practice to as many as possible. Briner is still focusing on this because HR professionals still, to put it bluntly, haven’t all ‘got it yet’, our panellists agreed.

“There’s no point just being new for the sake of it,” comments one. “If you really believe something’s important and it’s about building capability generally, then why wouldn’t you keep going on it?”

Why indeed. Which sums up perfectly HR magazine’s passion for championing the profession and what constitutes truly influential, organisation- and profession-enhancing HR each year through these rankings.

As the names on our thinkers ranking reflect, there has perhaps never been such a prolific year for HR issues consistently topping the wider news and political agenda. People issues are now front and centre in the minds of policymakers, the general public and employees across the nation, emphasising the critical nature of what many HR professionals do day in, day out.

It would be naive to deny the work still to do to improve the profession. But these rankings hopefully provide strong inspiration for what is possible, and show the level of influence that truly strategic, informed and engaged HR practice and thought leadership can achieve.

For the full rankings and profiles visit