Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
December 4, 2023

CHROs and the latest trends on corporate boards

Before we hosted a recent webinar with dozens of CHROs about the latest trends from the 2023 U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index, a pre-event attendee survey illuminated some of the top issues HR leaders see in their key roles with their corporate boards.

Of the nearly 200 respondents, 93% said they attend their company’s board meetings, and more than four out of five (82%) said they are involved in their company’s CEO succession planning discussions. The numbers reflect a yearslong trend about CHROs’ ever-growing influence in the boardroom.

During our conversation, we touched on several top-of-mind issues for CHROs in the context of our board index. Below we take a deeper look at what CHROs are thinking about when it comes to the role of boards, and to how HR leaders can best support their companies’ futures today and beyond.

The state of boards today — from the CHRO’s perspective

Our survey of CHROs included an open-ended response to the question, “What issues are currently top of mind of your board?” While typical issues like finances were common responses alongside trending topics like AI and cybersecurity, many talent-related issues stood out.

For one, nearly 40% of respondents cited succession planning as a critical topic for boards, and “talent” was cited by 18%. We most commonly hear that CHROs are most concerned about renewal and succession processes. What’s the best way to assess the board? How do you get the right mix of people on your board? How do you master the director onboarding process?

As the company’s “people leader,” the CHRO shoulders much of the responsibility of managing this process effectively. The level of skill and sophistication CHROs bring to the table in answering these questions has a significant impact on the effectiveness of the succession planning process and the eventual handover of the CEO role.

Board recruitment trends

The 2023 U.S. board index points to some key trends for CHROs to consider as they look at refreshment within both the board and the C-suite.

For boards, prior board experience is not a necessity to be an attractive candidate, especially as it pertains to expertise in key realms such as cybersecurity, digital and DE&I. While CEOs and finance backgrounds remain the most sought-after traits, tech and consumer backgrounds are generating interest, as is international experience.

How might this play out for CHROs? More boards may do deeper self-assessments that give them a clearer view of their strengths and gaps, and then figure out how they can refresh boards with candidates that better meet the board’s needs.

CHROs on boards

Not surprisingly, more than 90% of our attendees said in our pre-event survey that they would be interested in joining a board. Yet despite the outsized impact CHROs can and do have on their companies’ boards, few ascend to major public-company boards. Functional leaders overall only make up about 15% of new directors, and the number of CHROs on boards remained low in 2023.

So what’s the secret to the success of those few CHROs sitting on boards? First and foremost is patience: Overall turnover on S&P 500 boards was less than one new director per board in 2023, consistent with previous years. But there are some things you can do to help your chances. Being a world-class CHRO is a must; a reputation as a recognized and respected talent expert is critical for board consideration. Experience on private-company boards can also offer important experience that may open opportunities for you. Directors can have a bigger voice on private boards, especially talent experts who understand how much of an impact the workforce, including leadership, can have in a company’s success. Creating value on a private board can open up doors for more boards both public and private.

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All in all, CHROs are in a unique position to bring value to the boardroom, as directors when possible, and as leaders guiding the board through important priorities such as executive succession.

As we’ve noted before, the CHRO’s role in CEO succession planning is multifaceted and demanding. But a proactive and engaged CHRO is an invaluable resource for boards as they seek to guide their organizations to success.