Moving your HR career onwards and upwards, part three

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January is a time for change, so if you've been considering a career move lately read on

HR magazine explains how to get from where you are to where you want to be.

From HRD to… NED

What’s the opportunity?

As boards are forced to become more diverse the opportunity has never been greater for HR directors who fancy turning their hands to a non-executive career.

“We are seeing more opportunity for people in the HR sphere than ever before [to join boards as NEDs]; there is more of an opportunity for strong change-centric people skills,” confirms Anna Penfold, consultant

at executive search firm Russell Reynolds. She adds that as well as a drive for greater diversity HR leaders can be well served by their expertise in executive pay (particularly timely given the government’s proposed corporate governance changes). Beyond reward, an HR background can also prove useful in acting as a facilitator.

However, Catherine Brown, former HR director at the Bank of England and a NED on five boards, including FNZ and the Cabinet Office, warns that an HRD is always going to find it harder than a CFO, say, to find a NED position. “If you are a CFO every board is available,” she says. “That means half the seats are already gone as anyone who is not a CEO or CFO is competing for seats.”

The right HR type

Crawford Gillies, who sits on boards including energy firm SSE, chairs the RemCo at Barclays and is a faculty member at School for CEOs, says remuneration expertise helps. “[The RemCo chair] is one of the most difficult board roles to fill,” he says, adding that although he is not from an HR background he knows several former HRDs who chair RemCos.

However, Brown emphasises that your contribution cannot be limited to reward. “You have to be able to contribute on all board business,” she says. “That means as a senior exec you have to get more involved and demonstrate you can add value across the whole range.” Digital skills are particularly coveted right now, she adds, and having a strong network is critical: “I can connect people in the Cabinet Office with people in the City, for example, and that becomes an attribute chairs look for.”

Anyone considering taking the NED route will need “exceptional facilitation skills” and the ability to embrace change and work in an agile way, Penfold says. The hardest thing for her to find during searches is “results- and outcome-focused HRDs”. Gillies adds there is a “real role for an individual who can provide counsel and advice to the CEO” and that you will need to be able to “influence without having executive power”.

Making it happen

Getting your first NED position can be tough, especially in listed companies. So Gillies and Brown both advise starting in the public or third sector to gain experience and build a reputation. “Once you’ve got one [role] it’s easier to get another,” says Brown. “You have to be persistent.” She adds that it can be a “solitary” process as intense competition means playing your cards close to your chest when going for roles.

Penfold advises viewing your career as a series of “change programmes or projects” and Brown suggests getting experience on non-listed company boards doing specific strategic projects, such as preparing a business for flotation.

Be clear on whether you are seeing the NED route as a new career or a post-career. “Increasingly it is not seen as winding down to retirement but as a new career,” says Gillies. “The most effective NEDs view it as such.” He adds the workload can’t just be viewed as the nominal board meeting days, as “you need to leave yourself capacity to deal with a crisis”.

From HRD to… private sector leader

What’s the opportunity?

The time is ripe for HR leaders to step outside their expertise into other strategic leadership roles in the private sector. “The opportunity for good people is there and I think it’s something we will see more of,” says Neil Morrison, director of strategy, innovation and culture at Penguin Random House (where he was previously group HRD). “Perhaps it’s not surprising [CEOs have] recognised the value of having people who can bring the core skill of HR into other areas of the business.”

“Leadership is the real value we can add to roles outside HR,” says Sandy Begbie, chief people officer at Standard Life who has also been COO and is the lead executive for the firm in China. “We know how to influence, how to drive strategic direction and how to realise efficiencies and value. We are incredibly balanced leaders.”

The right HR type

“There’s a piece around innate curiosity and wanting to see how things work,” says Helen Dickinson, chief strategy officer (and former people director) at Simply Health. Morrison agrees, echoing the importance of curiosity and getting to know the business inside-out. “Having that experience and a voice that’s recognised as being worth listening to means when you transition you have that personal equity,” he explains.

For Begbie critical attributes are “the ability to influence, gravitas, and a deep business and customer understanding”. This will help you influence at a higher level and earn respect from your peers. “Being able to demonstrate sound judgment is integral to moving into any leadership position,” he says. “It’s not enough to be confident in your own decisions; others need to be confident in them as well.”

You will also need the confidence to operate in a “grey environment where [you] might not know all the answers,” Begbie adds. Morrison says resilience has been critical to making a success of the transition: “I’ve never been tested so much. You have to recognise you aren’t the expert in the room on a regular basis, which is a challenge.”

Dickinson cites “a willingness to put yourself into positions where you don’t know all the answers” as important, adding: “Recognise good leadership isn’t about knowing the answers but building a great team around you.” “By moving into roles outside HR I learned to surround myself with experts and build the best team,” Begbie agrees.

Making it happen

While Dickinson says she has never had a “rigid” career path in mind she has been open to taking secondments and opportunities outside HR.

“Think about the conditions, environment and support you want around you and find the opportunity that has those,” she advises. “It’s about knowing yourself well, knowing what sort of support you want and going for it. It’s never as scary as you think.”

“Being an innovative thinker and looking to the digital world for ideas and inspiration” will help you stand out, Begbie believes.

He adds that taking opportunities to work in a foreign environment and unfamiliar culture have “opened [his] mind to completely new ways of working”. “For success outside HR I think you need to have this breadth of experience and deepened knowledge of relationship management and how to successfully influence,” he says.

Once you’ve made the move Morrison advises looking for the “quick wins” so you can demonstrate the impact you are having. However, he also cautions: “Be mindful about managing expectations. When you don’t know the terrain you have to be more circumspect.”

From HRD to… CEO

What’s the opportunity?

The opportunity for an HRD to step into the top job isn’t huge – at most 3% of CEOs come from HR. Guy Pink, interim CEO at Addaction, calls the rate “shockingly low” but adds that many HRDs are “too narrowly focused” to step up.

However, some feel the tide may be turning. “There is a genuine change and I think more HR leaders will step into top roles, not just the CFO or COO,” says Esther O’Halloran, former MD and HRD at Paul UK, who now runs EOH Business Solutions.

“Most CEOs come from a finance background, and that tells us what we value – profit over people. But organisations cannot be transformed by products and services alone; they are bought to life by people,” adds Romana Abdin, CEO and former HRD at Simply Health.

The right HR type

“Depth of sector experience” is critical, according to Alastair Paton, managing partner, UK at search firm Signium. Moving around industries can count against an HRD. “There are some judgments you make as CEO where you have to throw in your [knowledge] that comes with the sector,” he explains.” He adds: “The best HRDs are at the table already. You have to be outward-focused and show you have an opinion that’s relevant beyond HR.”

Knowing the business inside-out is a given but your knowledge cannot start and end there. “It’s understanding the business and the context, internally and externally, knowing what is happening in your sector and what your competitors are doing,” says O’Halloran. She cites the ability to analyse data and stakeholder influencing skills as equally useful.

On a personal basis, Abdin says being “resilient, courageous and comfortable putting yourself into uncomfortable positions” is critical. O’Halloran agrees and adds being “tenacious and resourceful”: “You have to be thick skinned; it’s the harder edge of the soft skills.”

Making it happen

If you’re interested in the CEO role then “try it out” by putting yourself forward to run a business unit or division, Paton says. Pink suggests widening your portfolio beyond HR – as HRD he was also responsible for facilities management, corporate governance and risk.

“Network with people who can help, and think about what your objective is [in networking],” Paton advises, adding that getting a coach from the board to act as a sponsor and adviser – and help getting your name out to the rest of the board as a credible candidate – is key.

Abdin says she “thought long and hard” about taking the CEO role before accepting it. “I know the responsibility that goes with it, being the person who makes the ultimate decision,” she adds. “People need to think about it carefully. It’s not a power role it’s a stewardship role.”

Both she and Paton raise the issue of confidence – something women in particular may lack when it comes to the top job. “Looking at the [CEO job spec] 40% of it was not on my CV,” Abdin recalls. “I had to give myself a shake. A business is not built by one person.” “HR people tend to be more critical of themselves and so less likely to put themselves forward,” Paton adds.

But he offers a final word of warning about the top job for ambitious HRDs: “Do you really want it? It’s exposed and lonely. You have to be very driven, by the fear of failure or desire to succeed. Get a realistic understanding of what it takes.”

From HRD to consultant, or public sector leader

From HRD to interim HR professional, or group HRD

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