Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
February 11, 2020

How Can HR Leaders Get on Corporate Boards?

One of the questions I’m asked most often by HR leaders is: How can I get on a corporate board? In previous years, the answer may have been: Become a CEO. Fortunately, the board director profile is slowly but surely changing. 

Last year, S&P 500 companies appointed 432 new independent board directors — the most since 2004. Many of these directors come from different backgrounds than the “traditional” board director: 

• 59% are diverse (women and minority men)
• 27% are first-time board directors 
• One out of six is “next-gen” (50 or younger)
• Almost two-thirds (65%) come from outside top executive ranks of CEO, chair/vice chair, president and COO 
• 23% are division/subsidiary heads, EVPs, SVPs or functional unit leaders

Although board turnover remains slow and HR remains underrepresented in the boardroom, with growing openness to bringing on different types of expertise (and news of organizations such as Goldman Sachs refusing to back IPOs if there is not at least one diverse member on the board), now may be a good time to begin to position yourself to serve on a board if that is one of your goals. Here are five ways to improve your chances:

1. Understand your unique strengths. Serving as a director is a time-consuming activity, so you want to be sure the investment is worthwhile. Ask yourself, “Why do I want to be on a board?” Is it to advance your career? Is it to drive progress in diversity at a multinational company? Understand your motivations and the value you bring. Your unique experiences as an HR leader, such as managing the people side of a merger or heading up an organizational culture transformation after a restructuring, can help differentiate you. 

2. Become a corporate governance expert. While this sounds like common sense, it is surprising how many smart people skip this step. Learn about the board selection process. It is typically led by the board’s nominating/governance committee behind closed doors. Boards don’t announce when they are looking for directors and don’t disclose candidates under consideration. You can’t apply for the job, but you can get on the radar of people who are in a position to recommend you. Research companies to determine the best fit for you. Think about what sectors interest you and be mindful of potential conflicts of interest. Understand the issues facing boards today. (Check out our extensive library on board governance trends and practices to help build your knowledge.)

3. Cultivate your board network. After you’ve categorized and prioritized your list of companies, identify the board members. You may be surprised to find that you already know some directors or have contacts who do. Additionally, build relationships with executive search consultants. We have special insight into corporate boards and the skills they’re looking for. 

4. Start on smaller scale. Pursue a directorship with a nonprofit, such as an educational, healthcare or social services organization, as you build your board resume. While these experiences don’t provide public governance experience, serving on a nonprofit board can provide access to a network that might ultimately lead to the right corporate board opportunity — especially if you add value and work collaboratively with others. You can also explore board opportunities at small, private companies as a way to build your governance skills.

5. Be known as a world-class CHRO. Act as an adviser to your CEO and board. Lead discussions on the talent agenda and organizational culture. Measure engagement and tie culture to business results. Strong employee engagement and business performance are products of a healthy culture that ideally is aligned with strategy. The CHRO should serve as an advocate for culture, evaluating whether the current culture is helping or hindering performance, and work with the senior leadership team and the board to institutionalize the desired cultural behavior from the top. Additionally, share your expertise more broadly to raise your profile externally — speak at events and join the dialogue on LinkedIn and other channels about key issues where HR and governance intersect, such as diversity and inclusion, succession planning and compensation. I have known several CHROs who have gained visibility and expanded their networks through key HR organizations such as HR Policy Association, G100 Network and HR50, which ultimately resulted in an introduction that led to their board appointments.

The good news is that boards are increasingly recognizing the importance of a diversity of perspectives and, as a result, the profile of the “ideal” board director is gradually being redefined. By becoming a student of governance, building relationships and being at the top of your game as an HR leader, you can be ready when the opportunity comes to rel="noopener noreferrer" get a seat at the table. 

Steve Patscot is the North American leader of Spencer Stuart’s Human Resources Practice, where he advises CEOs, boards and senior human resources executives on leadership and succession planning issues. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn