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From HR to Board

04 April 2024

Ruth Foster

Story by
Ruth Foster Chief Operating Officer, Eames Group

The boardroom table is set for the Annual General Meeting

Ruth Foster, Chief Operating Officer, Eames Group on how to get noticed and how to get to the C-suite

Let’s be honest. When we say ‘HR’ there’s still by and large a stigma attached to the function. And most importantly, an underestimation of how the function can positively impact business growth. HR is no longer just the standards enforcer, the internal ‘police’ or the cavalry who arrive on horseback whenever any line manager goes rogue. HR is much more than that. And that’s the first, most important thing to understand and believe if you want to progress from HR to the Boardroom.

Balancing people with business

For me, the crux of being in an HR role has always been about balancing people, with business. They’re inextricably linked. And having worked in the consulting services sector throughout my career, respecting that balance has been critical. A business that’s all about business, without any regard for developing and retaining talent, will by and large fail. The cost of hiring, re-hiring, retraining, is eye-watering and the constant revolving door impacts your customers too. And guess what? That hurts your revenue. So you can’t just forget your people. They’re (cliché but true) your business back bone.

On the flip side, a company that is all about the people without any underlying commercial acumen, will likely be a very enjoyable place to work but won’t achieve its goals – as it likely won’t have any. Remember the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Well, it does. But you have to have a strategy otherwise it’s like trying to fly a spaceship to the moon without any understanding of how to make that happen. Or where the moon is.

So balancing and demonstrating a commercial mindset with a people centric approach, in an HR role, is key to progressing to a Board position. But what does that mean in reality?

Aligning objectives

To me, that means aligning the objectives of HR to those of the business. What are the strategic goals of the business and how can your team enable the achievement of those goals?

Enablement is key. So for example, if leadership development is key then defining a plan to assess your current leadership capability, work through an appropriate organisational design, work on a talent attraction plan, create a plan to develop and retain diverse leadership, could all be critical. Dependent upon your starting point and the goal in hand.

Being commercial

Far from being the problem-solving function that HR was once perceived to be, it’s again supporting commercial outputs. In any given challenge or scenario it’s working with your business leads to understand what outcome it is that you’re looking to achieve, the options that you have available to achieve that outcome, the appetite for risk (and indeed, what those risks are) and then advising the best course of action. Enabling outcomes you see?

Getting noticed

If you’re on board with the concept of HR as a commercial function, balanced with people centricity, then your next step is to get yourself noticed. Act the part of a board member. Get yourself noticed, for the right reasons. It’s unlikely you’d have targets to be appointed a Board member but more likely that through promotion to a C-suite role, or through being invited to join the Board, that it happens. So you need to get noticed and stand out.

You do that through letting your drive and ambition, and the results you deliver do the talking for you. Forgive the directness but massaging egos and sidling up to the right people won’t cut it. And you shouldn’t want it to. Get appointed on results and merit only.

When I came back from maternity leave after my second child I was concerned about what my job would have become. So I created a role for myself. I spent time with all the business leads understanding their people challenges, their business goals, and what support was needed. As a result I created a Learning and Development programme. I put myself through an employment course whilst I was on maternity leave with my first child and an executive coaching qualification after my second. But never was that at the expense of spending time with my children. Ever. That compromise is not an option for me.

Creating opportunity

So my advice is: yes, sure. Make the most of every opportunity that presents itself. But, more importantly, create those opportunities for yourself. Take control of your career, your future and make it happen. Create opportunities to showcase what you can do to positively impact the company.

The other advice would be that, when you are in a forum where board members are present, act the part. Have something to say that’s meaningful, considered and demonstrates your thinking. But be authentic. Say something because you believe it needs saying. Not because you like the sound of your own voice. And the bi-product may well be that it gets you noticed.

I recently had a conversation with our NED in which he mentioned that I ‘came on to his radar’ around 14 years prior. Little did I know. In retrospect, I guess that’s where my journey to the board started and I didn’t even know I wanted it then. Let alone realise I was on that path. We had quarterly meetings as a partner group during which I was relatively vocal on topics I understood, had an opinion to impart and was confident I was doing so in a professional, solutions-focussed manner. That got me noticed apparently. But in sharing those opinions you also have to demonstrate that you are listening to your peer group, to those who know more, questioning and challenging anyone about anything but in the right way. That being done with active listening, with genuine interest and a genuine desire to understand. It can’t be about winning a debate. It’s about arriving at the best decision to progress the business – whether that’s yours or not.

That all might sound rather contrived. Doing those things to arrive at an outcome could be contrived. Or it could be career driven. Honestly, that’s not why I was doing them at the time but they are what got me here. Most importantly, I was just me. I was authentic to myself. And being me, I was always restless to do more, be better and progress further. To learn, to know more. And that’s maybe just DNA. I don’t know. But this I do know. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

So what do you think? Can you?

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