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Event Roundup: Missing in Action: Where are the HR professionals on Australia’s boards?

On Thursday the 19th of October Watermark Search International (Watermark) held an executive luncheon and invited Sam Mostyn, Dr Judith MacCormick and Rob Lourey to a form a panel and discuss the topic.

What followed was a broad-ranging discussion about the place of culture in the boardroom and the role that the HR professional can take in being part of that board discussion. Here are a few extracts from what the panel members had to say:

Ms Sam Mostyn

“There has never been a shortage of discussion around culture on good boards…but it is much more acute now and it will send a wave of reform through corporate Australia.”

“Now is the time (for HR professionals) to jump into the board environment and have the conversation. You should really back yourselves.”

“The HR team have to work across people and teams that are not made up of HR professionals. They have to get a wider perspective.”

“The profession could do with some self-analysis and self-discussion…it is too inward looking.”

“The Rem report is more widely read than the annual report but does it really tell the story of your company? Does it give an insight into the personality of the company?”

Mr Rob Lourey

“EQ is tough to measure and without measurement it loses its lustre.”

“Play the game of business and use the business lexicon of numbers and quantifiable facts.”

“Start with the outcomes and why you are doing something…not the how. The Executive and the board do not need to know the ‘how’…that is our job.”

"The move to a skills-based board provides an opportunity, but it is not enough to just have strong HR skills."

Dr Judith MacCormick

“HR has to see people as both the employees if the organisation as well as the customer.”

“The HR Professional needs to get into the minds of the business and see right through to the customer.”

“Many see the mindset of HR as being about compliance, conformance and contracts…where are the people in that?”

“We have to stop working on the people and work on the context.”

“We are starting to see the evidence of teams (including boards) performing better if they are cognitively diverse. So diversity is more than gender, age, cultural background or experience base.”

What advice did the panel have about taking your first board role?

  • Do something you have a passion for, whether Not for Profit or Commercial.
  • Not for Profits are a good starting place but only if you have a passion for that cause.
  • Get some governance training…it gives you the language of the boardroom as well as some education.
  • Understand the whole value chain…not just HR…it’s not enough.
  • Network and show a real interest. People are often really helpful.
  • Find a mentor but also find a sponsor…someone who will put the time into assisting you to get on that first board.

Takeaways that the panel offered:

  • Look at trends more broadly and see what they mean for the future of work. Bring new ideas to the table and someone who looks into the future.
  • There are many pathways to a board role. Do not just think that the only boards that ‘count’ are the ASX200 boards.
  • Have a laser-like focus on why you are doing what you are doing.
  • Be like Napoleon Bonaparte and develop an indefatigably optimistic level of persistence…never give up.
  • Careful what you wish for. Know why you want to be on a board…it’s not for everyone.
  • How do you bring the outside into the organisation so that you are seen as broader than just an HR professional? Be an ally to the CEO in dealing with complexity.

The topic of culture, the impact on organisations and the board’s role in guiding, maintaining or changing culture is very topical.

By way of background in a recent article titled “Trust Free-Falls in the Land Down Under” from Edelman, well-regarded for their annual Global Trust survey, it says “Australians’ trust in business leadership, including the “c-suite,” company directors and boards, is in dramatic decline.”

In Graham Bradley’s 2017 AICD Essential Director Update his view was that “The single biggest issue facing Australian Boards is the monitoring and management of Corporate Culture.”

John Price, the ASIC Commissioner, said that ASIC is looking to boards to “Play a role in setting the tone, influencing and overseeing culture, and ensuring the right governance framework and controls are in place.”

Corporate Culture has always been on the agenda of good boards but it has rarely been more acutely in focus. HR professionals have much to bring to the discussion but only if they step out of the realms of what might be viewed as a traditional HR perspective and demonstrate a laser-like perspective on how culture contributes to corporate performance. Do that and you will create opportunities to be seen as a board director who happens to have expertise in HR, culture change and business transformation…not the HR person on the board.

Feel free to review Watermark’s research on Board Diversity, which includes the distribution of various skill sets (such as HR) across the ASX300.