April 5th, 2023

The demand for CHRO expertise in the boardroom has long been predicted to surge. Following Covid-fueled issues like burnout, the mass resignation, the war for talent, as well as an increased focus on ESG and DEI, I’m seeing more and more CEOs and board chairs target HR expertise in their director searches.

People leaders are shaping the future of the boardroom in answer to the increasingly complex demands of stakeholders. Companies and investors are craving insights into human capital, talent acquisition and development, corporate culture, succession planning, and compensation… all areas that fall within the domain of HR and people leaders. They’re offering valuable guidance and oversight on hiring or firing the CEO, the CEO succession planning process, and designing strong executive compensation packages. They’re helping boards assess whether the company’s talent strategy is aligned with its business strategy and if they’re on track to cultivating a strong corporate culture.

If these sound like areas where your board needs additional expertise and oversight, read on to learn more about the value of HR leaders in the boardroom and how to recruit a right-fit HR leader to your board.

The importance of HR and people expertise in the boardroom

People/HR leaders bring valuable insights and expertise on managing talent, creating a positive workplace culture, and developing strategies to attract and retain the best employees. At the board level, people/HR leaders can provide guidance on a range of issues, including:

  1. Talent Management: People/HR leaders can help boards identify and develop talent, establish compensation policies, and create succession plans for key positions.
  2. Culture and Diversity: People/HR leaders can help boards develop strategies to foster a positive workplace culture, promote diversity and inclusion, and address issues related to harassment and discrimination.
  3. Change Management: People/HR leaders can help boards manage change within the organization, including mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, and downsizing.
  4. Employee Engagement: People/HR leaders can provide insights into employee engagement and retention, and help boards understand how to create a workplace that attracts and retains top talent.

A recent Athena Salon featuring Athena member Mia Mulrennan highlighted the importance of HR expertise in the boardroom and the unique contributions she’s made as an organizational psychologist to boards like (XYZ). She said HR leaders are asking and reporting on critical questions like…

“Where are our pain points right now when it comes to HR, sourcing people, selecting people, onboarding them, managing their performance, engaging them, motivating them, off-boarding them, developing them? How can we use data to measure it, fix it, or better it? Measuring what you spend in payroll, in bonuses, why you spend those things, how you compare to the market, measuring turnover. How does turnover compare across different business units?”

CHROs bring a specific skill set that is unique and valuable to the boardroom – from compensation to equity to CEO transitions to creating a strategy to overcome crises like the pandemic. They can guide the board as they deal with discriminatory behavior at the executive level, company culture, the great resignation, difficult conversations, and skyrocketing executive salaries.

Tips for finding your perfect HR board candidate

In a recent Athena Salon, Athena member Tracy Edkins (who’s served in head people roles at notable companies like eBay, Starbucks, and Splunk) shared her path to board service as a CHRO. Tracy currently serves on two corporate boards as well as serving as an advisor to Generation Investment Management, Plan C advisors, iCMS, and more.

When Tracy first set her sights on a board role, someone in her network recommended joining Athena’s executive development community, where women leaders can get the right-time executive education and coaching they need to become board-ready and land a board seat. They also suggested she take every possible call with a recruiter and put the word out to her network that she was seeking a board seat.

She did the deep work of understanding her unique value and the types of boards where she could contribute and thrive. She attended industry conferences and forums, grew her network intentionally, and continuously (over the course of 18 months) put the word out that she was seeking a board role. In the end, she landed two board seats where her expertise in compensation, leadership development, M&A, and D&I were wholly valued.

Within the first few months of board service, Tracy was asked (based on her HR experience) to lead a transition initiative and to lead the Nom/Gov and Compensation Committees as Chair. Coupled with the positive feedback she received from her board peers, this was an affirmation of the value she – and HR leaders generally – bring to the boardroom table. Tracy has continued to leverage Athena’s Peer Groups for sitting board directors and committee members to go deeper with her learning.

What can you learn from Tracy’s board search as you seek an HR leader for your board?

  1. Work with a recruiter, but keep your options open. Recruiters have an extensive network, but they can move slowly; Tracy was surprised to find some recruiting cycles lasted longer than a year. By working with a recruiter and simultaneously leveraging your network, you can get a steady flow of candidates and continuously refine your board spec to find your ideal director.
  2. Leverage weak ties to broaden the net. Recruiting within your same network is sure to get you the same results; preparing for the future of business requires boards to integrate new perspectives and expertise into their strategy. We talk a lot about the strength of weak ties at Athena – the idea that your weaker or lesser-known connections will propel you further in your career than your closest contacts. Turn Tracy’s approach around for your board: to find new talent, let everyone in your network know that you have an open board seat and the criteria you’re seeking.
  3. Get real about what you need and what you offer. Not every board needs a CEO or CFO to reach the next level of growth. Consider using a board matrix to assess the existing competencies and the skills required for the next phase of growth; do you need someone who’s an expert in human capital, learning innovation, go-to-market, M&A? Then, make sure you’ve built a board culture that strong directors want to be a part of, and be intentional in building your compensation package to attract the right talent.

Recruit your board’s HR expert with Athena

Broaden your network to find your next board director with Athena’s global network of board-ready leaders. You can work with Athena like a recruiter (for a fraction of the cost) to get a curated list of candidates perfect for your board. Or post your opportunity to our members-only platform for free and get interested candidates straight to your inbox. Learn more here or get in touch by emailing [email protected].



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