HR leaders discuss whether HR heads should sit at the boardroom table

Research by board adviser suggests function heads should be on top or on tap depending upon their personal qualities and what they can contribute
Oct. 9, 2010 - PRLog -- Whether or not the head of a function should serve on a board depends upon the individual and the corporate context according to Prof Colin Coulson-Thomas. He told members of the HR Leaders Club that “The general consensus among chairmen is that an individual without directorial qualities should not be put upon a board just to ‘fill a particular slot’. A board can obtain specialist advice as and when required from advisers and consultants, or by inviting a specialist along for a particular agenda item.”

The author of “Developing Directors, a handbook for building an effective boardroom team”, claimed “People should only go onto a board if they have directorial qualities and a directorial perspective, they complement and add to the existing capabilities of the board, and they can make a useful contribution to the general work of the board. It is also a question of horses for courses, some people who would be useful board members in one situation might not be appropriate in another.”

Coulson-Thomas pointed out that “Good managers do not always become effective directors, while individuals with limited management experience can sometimes make a significant contribution to a board as a result of their personal qualities. Many specialist professionals lack a balanced and holistic perspective, and have a ‘departmental’ view of corporate reality.”

The Professor’s own surveys reveal “Strategic awareness and personal qualities usually dominate the criteria for boardroom appointments. Formulating a distinctive and compelling vision and a realistic strategy requires business acumen and the abilities to look ahead, see a company as a whole and understand the context within which it operates.”

He reported: “Personal qualities sought include integrity, determination, independence, objectivity, balance, commitment, individuality, sensitivity, strategic and ethical awareness, and a sense of accountability and responsibility. Loyalty, team spirit and ‘fitting in’ are valued more highly by some chairmen than originality and creativity.”

In addition to internal monitoring and reporting past performance Coulson-Thomas believes “a board should be externally focused and looking ahead. Directors need energy and drive to move an organisation forward, certain legal and financial knowledge, and an awareness of boardroom issues and practice and relevant governance requirements.”

He added: “Skills such as planning, delegating and appraising are especially relevant. Communication skills are important both within the boardroom and when building mutually beneficial relationships with stakeholders. HR professionals with the right qualities who can also engage with employees, unions and other groups might gain an edge when it comes to board appointments. However, many HR directors with a directorial perspective come from outside the HR team”

Finally a sense of perspective is required. Coulson-Thomas reminded HR Leaders Club members that “becoming a director brings its rewards, but board members also take on onerous legal duties and responsibilities. Some senior practitioners consider the risks too high. They turn down board appointments in favour of advisory or consultancy roles.”

He understood being a director and sitting around the boardroom table is an issue for some HR professionals, but commented: “In other arenas senior practitioners are not similarly obsessed. Thus ambitious members of the marketing team might be more concerned with securing larger budgets, being responsible for better known brands or winning creative awards. While having an end goal can motivate, people can also derive great satisfaction from contributing during their journey through life.”

Colin Coulson-Thomas’ talk on Developing Dynamic Top Level Teams to the HR Leaders Club was given in the Herbert Morrison Room of the Marriott County Hall on London’s South Bank. The club is organised by Human Resources magazine and this particular event was organised by Buck Consultants.

’Developing Directors, a guidebook for building an effective boardroom team’, by Colin Coulson-Thomas, is published by Policy Publications and can be ordered from:

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas is an active international consultant who has helped over 100 boards to develop directors and to improve board and/or corporate performance. He is an experienced director and board chairman and is a member of the business school team at the University of Greenwich. He can be contacted via

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