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Moving on up: Where next on the HR career ladder?

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Rare is it that you’ll find a HR director who admits their job is what they thought it would be when they started their career.

More often than not they put their career path down to chance – ‘I fell into HR’ is a favourite phrase.

Once-temporary office jobs turned into training, then L&D; or a store management role became recruitment, which developed into HR.

As easy as it can be to fall into HR though, there are many reasons why it can be just as easy to fall out of it.

The last three years has presented such a cliff-edge for some. In the 12 months to June 2022, HR globally had the highest turnover rate of any profession, according to LinkedIn.


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Burnout, HR knows, is rife in the workforce, and people professionals are feeling the strain.

The CIPD’s 2023 State of HR survey revealed 43.6% of HR professionals have experienced work-related mental ill health.

Separate data from Sage shows 95% of HR leaders around the world say working in HR is simply too much work and stress.

But it’s not all bad. The persistent call for HR’s seat at the table is finally starting to pay off as the rest of the c-suite agrees it’s high time they got on board.

Sage’s data shows 91% of HR and c-suite leaders say HR’s role has changed dramatically over the past five years, and most (91% HR, 95% c-suite) believe HR has the right skills to become heads of business.

This could mean that instead of ‘falling out’ of HR, many more people leaders are empowered to try something different.

Whatever the reason behind the itch to change, people professionals who find themselves in this position are left with the question – what next?

 

HR as non-executive director

Though business leaders’ views on the strategic importance of HR have started to change, it’s still uncommon to find people professionals in non-executive director (NED) roles.

Last year, professionals with a CHRO or HR background accounted for just 2% of all first-time FTSE 150 non-executive board appointments – this is compared to a third (34%) of new positions taken by those with a general management background (2022 UK Spencer Stuart Board Index).

However, the scarcity of HR NEDs shouldn’t be a deterrent to more people professionals working to build their NED portfolio.

Following a HR career at Transport for London and the Ministry of Justice among others, Beverley Shears is now NED and deputy chairwoman at North West Anglia NHS Foundation.

She’s passionate about others within HR doing the same. Experience, she says, is oen the snag that prevents HR leaders from going for or getting the NED positions they would like, but it depends on the sector.

“It’s denitely not an age thing, but the seasoned professional has to be there,” she says.

“It’s more about can you bring that acquired experience and skills and apply them to a different role?

“HR people have the potential to be really good at it because they are already used to listening, working with people to come up with solutions, and spotting issues and patterns.”

Former CPO of JustEat Mira Magecha is now director and founder of her own business consultancy, Play for Change.

She says the prerequisite for experience in NED roles also depends on the stage of development a company is at and the board structure in place.

When approached for the NED position she now holds at student discount site UniDays, Magecha says: “They had just gone through some media challenges around their people practices and so they were looking for someone very specific to help them change that reputation internally.”

UniDays is privately held and therefore does not have the same requirements or profile as a listed business.

She adds: “They weren’t looking for someone with board experience necessarily; they wanted someone who was the right fit for them to help the CEO, the chairperson, and the exec team.”

As with many jobs, landing the first NED role is the hardest part. After that, more opportunities follow.

To get started, Shears suggests HR leaders ask at the organisation they’re currently in or seek trustee and unpaid opportunities.

She adds: “You bring an awful lot back to the organisation and you get some early exposure from a fairly safe place.”

Taking a safer opportunity as a college governor is what helped Nathan Clements, chief people officer at SSP Group, gain early NED experience.

“You start there and then you’ll build your portfolio over time. And you can see it doesn’t take long to build a reputation,” he says.

Clements is now NED at coaching technology company The Makings, which, as a start-up, is helping to refine his skills.

“It’s definitely a more unique non-exec role than a standard one,” he says.

“It’s much more free-flowing and, in truth, it oscillates between coach/mentor and helping people stay within the guidelines, and then we do some creativity and ideas.”

With or without prior executive board experience, one learning curve for a first-time NED is advising and letting go of the responsibility for delivery.

“I think the most difficult transition into a NED role is stepping back and not doing the doing – not rolling up your sleeves,” says Shears.

“You don’t know best and you don’t second-guess the person who is highly qualified, and could give you a run for money at interview for a role.

“It’s how you give them the space to perform but support and hold them to account as a NED.”

Clements, who is part of the executive committee at SSP Group, adds: “Your non-exec duties and your responsibilities are significantly different to your executive duties, and if you’re a new NED, the risk is you try to lead and direct and deploy your executive experience, which instantly winds up your counterpart [on the exec team].”


Professional background of first-time non-executives in the top 150 companies in the UK in 2022

34% General management

17% CEO

19% Other

17% C-suite

11% CFP

2% CHRO and HR

Source: UK 2022 Spencer Stuart Board Index


As the NED space is so competitive, Clements admits it can be hard for HR to have the edge over CEOs, CFOs and other managers more commonly favoured for such roles.

However, Scarlett Brown, HR Most Influential Thinker and head of think tank at leadership research and consultancy business Board Intelligence, believes there is one emerging area where people professionals could develop a distinct advantage.

“At the moment, the sustainability conversation can still be quite stuck in the technical: counting carbon, reducing footprint and scope 1, 2, 3 emissions and stuff like that. The kind of stuff that makes all our brains swell,” she says.

“But once you’ve got past the reporting and metrics, particularly for organisations that are hefty on the people side, the transformation needed is going to require a level of understanding about how you transform organisations more generally.

“Now, if you’re an HR leader then you’ve got the skills to understand what makes transformation and change work or not work.”

 

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