· Features

HRDs are the consiglieri of the C-suite

HRDs have one of the best jobs in the business, but shouldn't be afraid to take charge in the C-suite. CEOs and HRDs could learn valuable leadership lessons if they swap roles, says Saatchi & Saatchi deputy chairman Richard Hytner.

Even as culture climbs higher up the boardroom agenda, it seems the currency of those best able to shape it continues to be debased.

HR directors are often dismissed as daydreamers devoid of commercial clout, disconnected from the reality of the business, best parked on the side-lines of the C-suite.

But it is not because HR practitioners subscribe to the fantasy. The ones I have worked with know perfectly well that as the context for leadership changes, so, too, does the need for a new kind of collective leadership.

In a world that values caution, cost containment and consistency at the same time as it demands growth, innovation and adaptability, we need leaders who can create an environment conducive to success. The singular emphasis on the all-powerful, limelight leader must be exposed for what it is: an unhealthy obsession with the number one and an implicit suggestion that everyone else somehow lacks the ambition or talent to make it to the top.

Might this be the time for HR to issue a statement of the surprisingly obvious: the kind of leadership we need has to exist beyond the C-suite and its source could be the HR function.

In conversations I’ve had with leaders across sectors, there’s often emphatic agreement that emotional intelligence is a vital and distinctive ingredient of leadership. At their best, HR people are well versed in EQ; they are natural and trusted leaders, authentic and empathetic.

When HR directors have these personal qualities, why do so few show any desire to command the C-suite? Is it that they have had an opportunity to observe up close the horrors that come with ultimate accountability? 

Or is it that, without an accounting qualification, they don’t feel up to it? This, too, feels implausible.

In my experience, HRDs have enough EQ to know their own talents. They have the capacity to acquire new skills, as well as the courage and the capability to lead. What else explains why HRDs often feature in the CEO’s close circle of consiglieri – right-hand men and women, advisers, counsellors and fixers?

I have a hypothesis for why more HR directors do not make it to the top of their organisations. With few exceptions, even if you have ceded cash, status and a shot at ultimate accountability, the one thing you have no intention of giving up is the best job in the organisation.

In HR, you get unfettered access and proximity to power; autonomy and all the accountability you crave; a chance to shape successful outcomes for a cause you care about; your hands on the asset that matters most – the people; and you get a shot at a nomination for best supporting actor.

But I think organisations would be better served if more HRDs did test their leadership capabilities as chief executives and if more CEOs tried leading the talent function.

A role reversal would go a long way to driving greater understanding of, and respect for, the different leadership muscles required of A leaders (with final accountability) and C leaders (consiglieri). It might also serve to silence those in other functions who believe people are a cost, rather than the most significant contributor to building a sustainable competitive advantage.

Richard Hytner is deputy chairman of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. His book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, is out now.