How HR can make an impact in the boardroom

For HR leaders, a position on the board can be the difference between simply implementing company strategy and actually helping to shape it. But earning a seat at the table is no easy feat. Here, three people chiefs explain how HR can gain greater influence in the boardroom

Hr On Board

While finance leaders are a staple of most company boardrooms, HR leaders are a much rarer sight. Analysis from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that only 2% of FTSE 350 companies have a chief people officer (CPO) or HR director on the board, compared with 99% that have a boardroom seat for a chief financial officer or finance director.

An absence of HR expertise means that boards often become preoccupied with the financials, lack emotional intelligence and overlook people and DEI issues, according to the CIPD report. But despite this imbalance, there is growing awareness of the value that people leaders can bring to the boardroom.

Here, three people chiefs explain how HR leaders can best position themselves for boardroom appointments – and how to ensure that their voice is heard once they’ve earned a seat at the table.

Heidi Thompson 
CPO, Duncan & Toplis 

Earning a place for HR on the board is a powerful demonstration of the heightened impact the function can have when it is embedded into the strategy of the business.

HR brings a unique perspective to the table that may not otherwise be represented. Plus, our insight and strategic approach can be a strong complement to the skills of the finance, marketing or technology thinkers. 

To earn a seat on the board, you need to adopt a results-first mindset. Quantifying where you can have an impact and demonstrating the results of your actions are imperative to demonstrating the value you will bring to the boardroom. 

The boardroom has often been focused on financials and some of those assumptions still linger

The HR function is often criticised for creating too many processes, so being able to showcase how you maximise the value of people operations and work hand in glove within the wider business strategy is very impactful.

The boardroom has often been focused purely on the financials of a business and some of those approaches still linger. Nobody questions why the CFO holds a place on the board, but HR leaders may find that they need to justify their spot. 

It’s easy to doubt yourself, but you must remain confident in the value your perspective brings. The HR leader plays an important role in keeping a human element in the boardroom, ensuring that employees aren’t reduced to numbers.

Because people are at the very heart of a company, every aspect of the corporate agenda hinges on them. You wouldn’t make a financial plan without considering financials, so why develop a business strategy without considering your people?

In terms of preparing yourself for a board position, one of the most important skills to hone is your ability to influence. In many cases, the HR perspective is under-represented in the boardroom, so being able to form coalitions through collaboration and pragmatic business partnering can go a long way to increasing your impact. 

Kerrie Keene 
CPO, 4most 

As CPO at 4most, I’ve learned that board meetings are not simply about the bottom line. Yes, financial decisions form a core element of board-level discussions. But, since earning my seat in the boardroom, it’s become very apparent to me that none of the items on the agenda can be achieved without an engaged, happy and thriving workforce.

Culture is everything and I’ve become very aware of just how vital my role is in ensuring that every person in the business has a voice. For some that will be in relation to upskilling and career progression, while for others it’s making them feel valued and listening to and addressing their struggles and worries. 

I was nervous about my first meeting but I’ve found the boardroom to be a very supportive place

It was just over a year ago that I first sat at the boardroom table and I was pretty nervous about my first meeting. I was due to present the results of our employee engagement and culture surveys, which were both very positive, but I wanted to make a good first impression to ensure the positive message landed. 

I didn’t know what to expect, but thankfully I’ve found the boardroom to be an open, friendly and supportive environment. If I’d known what I know now, I would’ve been much more confident in voicing my opinions in that first meeting. 

I quickly realised that I had no need to be apprehensive about asking questions, sharing my ideas or even challenging the decisions of others. My thoughts and suggestions are always listened to and seriously considered. 

If the HR chief does not hold a position on the board, challenge it and ask why. Start by having a one-to-one conversation with someone on the board that you connect with and has the same values as you. 

Many businesses talk about putting their people first, but actions speak louder than words. If a business truly believes its people are everything, then they deserve a voice in the boardroom. As an HR leader or CPO it is also your duty to speak up and fight their corner. Bringing a CPO into the boardroom can be enlightening in so many ways and can have a really positive impact on the business decisions that are made there.

Rebekah Wallis 
Director of people and ESG, Ricoh UK 

Being a board member is both a privilege and a responsibility. You must act as a role model both inside and outside the company and promote the culture that the board aspires to. As an HR director, I am the people’s ultimate representative at board level and carry the responsibility to ensure their collective voice is heard.

Speaking out against groupthink isn’t always easy, so be prepared

It can be helpful for new board members to have an advocate or buddy to guide them through what’s expected in their role. Being a new board member can be challenging – I’ve seen imposter syndrome affect new members regardless of their gender or other characteristics.

Speaking out against groupthink or long-standing views isn’t always easy, so you should be prepared. Speak to a mentor, coach, or a fellow board ally to ensure you leave every meeting feeling that your views were appropriately voiced and heard, even if you don’t get the decision you wanted.

Actively listen, ask questions, be curious and help others to have their opinions listened to. Be an active part of creating the team that the organisation needs.

My advice to other HR leaders aiming for a board appointment is to find board-level mentors, both inside and outside the organisation. Build strong alliances and understand the key competencies required at that level – the knowledge, skills and behaviours. Finally, make sure to develop and demonstrate these in all your interactions across the organisation, especially with those who are not in senior positions.