HR on the Board with CEO aspirations

“HR justifying its seat on the board is such a hackneyed and patronising debate, but the fact that the question of whether it is even necessary for HR to be on the board keeps rearing its head. Here’s a statistic which may lend some weight to the argument, for every 100 HR directors only 17 make it to CEO. One thing is sure, that slight percentage would undoubtedly diminish further if HR was NOT represented on the board. The fact that old skool leadership was rumbled as self-serving and ultimately destructive, and is – as we speak – being re-defined to be more Mandela than Gekko, perfectly positions HR to make a grab for the brass ring. The image of leaders as being reckless, bourbon-swigging ledge dancers is history, and in its place is empathy, thought leadership and neuroscience. With ex-HR directors in the Captain’s chair, the board room will be lit by ambient candles, calming scents of bergamot and vetiver will waft across the serene collective, and only time will tell if pragmatic, thought-led stewardship in the UK’s boardrooms can cut it against certain international competitors, that have a distinctly different set of values and ambitions.”

What a vivid synopsis with which to draft a blog to.

I can think of one thing that plagues me; how many HR Directors can honestly say they’ve run a business?  Even a small consulting outfit.  I don’t mean having been a divisional lead – that comes with the equivalent of bowling-lane inflatable gullies – but a business balancing people, pounds, purpose, products, and philosophies.  And lived to tell the tale and bear the battle scars of toughness, love and insight?

So I guess the challenge is not many, it would seem, as the statistic of 17% of CEOs have had an HR tour of duty is a telling one.

Yet how can you say because you’ve run a small coaching consultancy you’re now qualified to run a multi-national pharmaceutical? Well it’s scale difference, sure but if you’ve grown a successful enterprise, you’ve been through the leading role and all that comes with it.

So why don’t more enterprising HRD’s establish spin-out enterprises that gives them the chance to lead something that is business-critical/useful and made it work proving they’re more than an MBTI grid junkie and a believer in engagement scores?

I see more HRDs being the coach, confidante and trusted advisor to CEOs yet it seems still limited to people matters and when it gets tough, the corporate lawyer, COO or FD is drafted into the inner sanctum and plotted as the leader-in-waiting.  Because they have the stripes or the toughness of approach to make it with angry shareholders or aggressive take-over bidders.

Seat at the table is a tired old cliche.  It is still talked about and still appears to be the apex of ambition for many and I’ve never been there or aspired to it so I can’t talk from experience.  Just as an interested observer.  It’s a start that at least you’re in the space where decisions are cast and where politics are exercised.

WHO do the HRDs who want to aspire to model and get inspired by?

Bob Chapman CEO at Barry-Wehmuller is a start.  Author of Everybody Matters.

Bob has the whole company ethos set to caring about people.  That sounds like an HR-pro approach to me.  This list of 10 Commandments of Truly Human Leadership seems to sum it all up:

  1. Begin every day with a focus on the lives you touch
  2. Know that leadership is the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you
  3. Embrace leadership practices that send people home each day safe, healthy and fulfilled
  4. Align all actions to an inspirational vision of a better future
  5. Trust is the foundation of all relationships; act accordingly
  6. Look for goodness in people and recognise and celebrate it daily
  7. Ask no more or less of anyone else that you would of your own child or loved one
  8. Lead with a sense of grounded optimism
  9. Recognise and flex to the uniqueness of everyone
  10. Always measure success by the way you touch the lives of people.

Herb Kelleher – the famed CEO of Southwest Airlines says “the business of business is people.  Yesterday, today and forever.”  So everyone matters.  And the evolution of the company has a purpose that matters to them and to you as the CEO.

I think companies believe their energy comes from their financial or non-financial assets; but they don’t burn their money or furniture, they burn the kilojoules of their people.

Chapman says in his book “The most powerful energy in the universe and thus in human beings is caring.”  The more we can combine work and caring the more fulfilled we will be and the further we will collectively advance.

It’s the CEO’s responsibility to not only steward the ship but to create a situation where individuals can choose to operate at a higher level of consciousness.  Of a higher level spoken about by Frederic Laloux in his “Reinventing Organisations” work.  Of Jos de Blok and his stewardship of leadership at Buurtzorg.  Of an organisation that is built for resilience and inspired to care like Richard Sheridan at Menlo Innovations.  Like Michael Tuteur at Votenet.  Like Nathan Donaldson at Boost.

Abraham Lincoln once famously said our consciousness should develop so that we become “better angels of our nature.”

I doubt we’d call any CEO an angel these days, but who is to say that more people-pro HR Directors – who mix great business acumen and the philosophy of caring about people – couldn’t make that their success criteria.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re entering into a post hero-leader era and more into a caring way to show responsibility for each other and build better workplaces that do more good than make money.

Because as Bob Chapman’s book says, everybody matters.  It’s the HR Director’s role to bring that to life and, ultimately, so is it the CEOs.

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