Can HR truly add value as a non-executive?

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Just like we’ve had to demonstrate the value of HR internally, we also need to change the views of those recruiting NEDs

At last count there were more than 6,000 non-executive directors sitting on the boards of the UK’s top 1,000 organisations. These NEDs come from a range of backgrounds – there is no specific qualification you must hold to be considered for a non-executive role after all. Yet sadly those with HR backgrounds are under-represented. According to data compiled for HR magazine by BoardEx and the Professional Boards Forum, just 13% of NEDS on FTSE 350 boards have current or past HR experience.

Some may argue this is down to the ‘HR on the board’ battle; that you can’t be an effective NED if you haven’t sat at the top table. Others suggest that HR don’t have the ‘skills’ required to be a valuable addition to the conversation.

There may be some truth in these arguments. In my opinion HR can only add value as a non-executive director if they think both strategically and operationally. The best work is done in the intersection of both. To possess these skills you don’t need to be sitting on a board. You do, however, need to be a modern-day people leader.

That means being creative, disruptive, forward-thinking, fiercely competitive but equally collaborative; bringing innovation, empathy, assertiveness and astuteness to the table. Knowing, understanding and believing exactly what the organisation is in business for – what its purpose is for being a business.

These are not the abilities of a transactional HR professional. The role of a non-executive is to be outside the day-to-day. These are the talents of the new breed of people leader. Someone who can provide guidance at a high level, adding value in decision-making, providing insight in process creation or elimination, helping drive productivity, and supporting the board to build the right culture that supports the greater purpose. While the non-executive may not be the final decision maker, they are there to make sure the business stays on the road it was intended.

The challenge for HR practitioners who wish to become non-executive directors is historical perception. Just like we’ve had to adapt, promote and demonstrate the value of HR in our own businesses, we also need to change the views of those recruiting non-executives.

And that sadly means proving our worth all over again – stretching and provoking the business, as well as raising the game considerably in terms of demonstrating the return on investment of HR interventions. HR needs to talk numbers. It needs to talk strategically. It means less ‘HR speak’ and more ‘business talk’. This is the only way the sway towards financial NEDs will change.

Can HR add value as a non-executive director? Absolutely yes, if you have the right progressive people leader in your corner.

Eugenio Pirri is chief people and culture officer at Dorchester Collection
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