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HR better placed than ever for board positions

Boards can no longer afford to ignore culture meaning HR's knowledge is sorely needed, according to chair of Advanced Boardroom Excellence Helen Pitcher

Speaking at a London HR Connection event, Pitcher said that boards' agendas have shifted to become more closely aligned with HR's skillset. “The board’s agenda is changing. Society has got pretty hacked off with corporations and how they behave. They are therefore looking very closely at what they do and how they do it. If we don’t we will fail,” she said.

Pitcher reported that her own research found that 39% of academics, chief executives and NEDs felt that HR has a good skillset but still had doubts about their ability to achieve a position on the board. Additionally 37% felt they should not be on the board and 24% abstained.

But as the issue of corporate governance rises up the agenda, HR’s skills are aligned with some boards’ top priorities, Pitcher said: “We’ve moved away from the situation where boards used to be custodians for shareholders. The whole agenda is now much wider; particularly under the new combined [corporate governance] code, and not all CEOs feel comfortable in talking about it,” she said.

Pitcher noted that companies are shifting towards long-term thinking on people strategy: “Long-term value and sustainability is really important, and the investors look to see how much value the CEO and the board have created. You need to be able to say 'this is the long-term shareholder return, and this is the sustainability agenda'. And this isn’t just about being green; the single biggest sustainability issue is longevity and development of people."

As a function HR is able to deal with issues that executives are still behind on, she said: “Board culture and organisational culture are also extremely important. It might be difficult for some executives to get their heads around, but you as HR professionals will know how to do this because you do it day in day out.”

Pitcher gave advice on how HR professionals can become valuable assets to their boards: “Being able to speak up is important. Even if it’s just saying ‘I’m sorry if I’ve misunderstood, but what I’m hearing is this'. Because you’d be surprised: a lot of other people in the room might be thinking the same thing. It’s still very hard for a lot of senior people to admit they don’t know something, so when you ask a question that offers additional insight it’s really valuable."

Personal brand is key to this, she said: “Get to know the board, but don’t cosy up to them. Board members will be happy to speak to you because you can offer insight into what is happening further down in the organisation too. This is thinking about your personal strengths, your professional strengths, and being really clear about what your personal brand is.”