HR leaders have been kept away from the boardroom for too long. In the past, they were often dismissed as specialists confined within their niche and lacking the overall strategic knowledge necessary to drive the business forward. Even when they managed to get a seat on the board, it was primarily because their companies wanted to boost their diversity figures. A March 2019 report reinforces this truth as it found 43% of HR directors are women while just 18% are COOs (Chief Operating Officers). However, the situation has started to change, albeit slowly.

In 2019, 492 boards in the S&P 500 companies selected 432 new independent board directors, which was the largest number since 2004. Many of these directors had diverse backgrounds and didn’t fit what you would call the “traditional” board director:

  • Almost 65% (two-thirds) were from outside the top executive ranks of president and COO, CEO, and chair/vice-chair
  • 59% were diverse (women and minority men)
  • 1 out of 6 was 50 years old or younger (next-gen)
  • 27% consisted of the first-time board directors

CEOs, investors, and boards are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of the right talent acquisition, retention, and compliance to achieve their business goals. And they’re realizing how HR leaders can help them in their endeavor to optimize the human capital and even lead and direct conversations around business communication, strategy, and growth. When you add the emphasis on diversity (like what Goldman Sachs did by refusing to back IPOs if the board didn’t have at least one diverse member), now is definitely a good time to start positioning yourself to get a seat on the board.

Here are five ways to improve your chances:

Know your strengths that can act as motivators and differentiators

Being a board director is a time-consuming task.  To make the most of it, you should ask what motivates you to take up this position. Is it related to career advancements? Or diversity and inclusion? Apart from knowing your motivators, you should try to understand your unique strengths too. For instance, prescribing actions on the people side during a merger or acquisition, driving a transformation of the organizational culture successfully, etc. could help you to stand apart in a crowd of potential board members. 

Hone your critical business abilities

There’s a perception problem with HR – it’s considered a support function. But the truth is – HR leaders are basically business leaders, who know the business well and possess traits and abilities that can add value even beyond their niche. If you want to be at par with other board members like the CEO, finance directors, and operations directors, apart from leveraging your traditional HR skills, it’s imperative to hone your business-specific skills too. These could include establishing stretch goals, problem diagnosis and solving, development of strategic perspectives, predicting outcomes, etc.

Become an expert in corporate governance

Consider the industries that interest you, areas that could trigger a conflict of interest, the board selection process, companies that may be the best fit for you, and the issues they are battling. Doing all these would help you to get noticed by people who can push your name for a seat on the board when the time comes. This is important because boards don’t publicize when other members will be added as directors and don’t reveal the candidates they are considering for the positions.

Develop your board network strategically

As an HR leader, you already have an extensive professional network. You must use these connections to their advantage to find the right people in the right places (who could be your first-degree connections, second-degree connections, or in the extended network of people you already know). Work strategically to cultivate these connections to get useful insights and make your case for the top-level job.

Prove you’re not afraid to transition into a new role

HR leaders should prove they aren’t just people managers but can actively handle other business roles too, say those related to purchasing, marketing, etc. It’s interesting to note that some of the most successful people who transitioned from being HR leaders to CEOs worked earlier in other business functions. General Motors CEO Mary Barra started her career in the company as an engineering intern before she went on to become the VP of Global HR. Anne Mulcahy – ex-CEO of Xerox, began his career as a sales representative.

Begin small

You can build and add to your public governance skills and experience by working as a director with a small-scale non-profit. This will not only get you on the radar of the right people but even help you to explore board opportunities in small, private organizations.

Get more vocal to be noticed

To be valued and prove yourself an integral part of the entire company, you need to fight your corner and make yourself heard. To position yourself as a world-class CHRO (chief human resources officer), you should also share your expertise extensively – by joining dialogues on LinkedIn, hosting online events on Zoom or Google Meet, put out podcasts and YouTube videos, etc.

Final words

As boards are waking up to the significance of having diverse perspectives, you – as an HR leader, now stand a good chance of getting that coveted seat at the table if you put your A-game on and use the strategies above to boost your chances.

Arash Palizban

Partner Director

InHunt World