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Get ready to step up: Why HR executives should prepare for corporate board roles

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Whether mid-career or moving towards retirement, anyone in HR should look ahead to what could be a very satisfying next chapter working on a board, affirms Jenny Dearborn.

Maybe it’s a coincidence.

Two surprising things happened after I left the corporate world earlier this year, launching a consulting practice after 20+ years as a human capital management executive.

First, corporate boards began to realise that their workforce is the real key to sustainable long-term growth (something those of us in HR have known all along). Second, I began to realise that it is directly from the board room that practical change flows (something I wish I’d understood much better when I was an executive).

The third thing – not so much a surprise as a welcome breath of fresh air – is the mandate now sweeping countries to include more women on corporate boards.

All of this positions HR executives, especially women, to start preparing right now for a future board role. Whether mid-career or moving towards retirement, anyone in HR should look ahead to what could be a very satisfying next chapter.

Boards need us

What makes me think corporate boards will be actively recruiting HR execs at an accelerating rate?

Institutional investors are sending loud messages. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management company, called HCM “a competitive advantage” and urged CEOs in his 2018 letter to better support their employees, including through retraining in the face of automation. BlackRock’s guidance on HCM practices emphasises boards are just as responsible as management for carrying them out.

It takes time to get board-ready, and deliberate effort to switch your mindset from being a functional expert to an advisor/coach.

A leg-up for women

It’s no secret that most HR professionals are women – so it’s encouraging that as HCM becomes a corporate priority, concrete progress toward increasing female board representation is also underway.

Last year, my home state broke new ground, requiring every California-headquartered company to include at least one woman on its board by year-end 2019, with larger boards requiring greater representation by 2021. Although Senate Bill 826 faces legal challenges, other states are following suit.

And it benefits the bottom line. Research shows organisations with gender-diverse leadership are more likely to have sustainable growth, higher average revenue and profits, and report higher earnings per share than businesses without female board directors.

More encouragement: This proxy season, BlackRock voted against directors at 52 companies because their boards lacked diversity, including gender, ethnicity and age, reporting that diverse groups make better decisions.

Getting started

It takes time to get board-ready, and deliberate effort to switch your mindset from being a functional expert to an advisor/coach. Start now, first investigating what a board role requires, so you can decide if you’d enjoy and excel at it. Key initial steps:

  1. Study up. Consume books, blogs, videos, board documents, annual reports, and more. I found these especially valuable:
    • Books: The Future of Boards: Meeting the Governance Challenges of the Twenty-First Century, and Boards That Lead: When to Take Charge, When to Partner and When to Stay out of the Way.
    • Videos: Stanford Rock Center for Corporate Governance YouTube channel and National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) YouTube channel
    • Email newsletters: From sources like the organisations below
    • Articles like this series
  2. Join associations. Take advantage of all they have to offer. A few suggestions:
    • Athena Alliance can help you think through the best role, industry and board for you (private, private equity-backed, venture capital-backed, public or non-profit).
    • NACD offers great classes and certifications.
    • Local board networking groups via your alma mater and/or nearby business or law schools. I attend the Silicon Valley Directors’ Exchange, near me.
  3. Attend training:
    • Seek out development sessions sponsored by professional search firms, consulting firms and venture capital firms.
    • Once you’ve laid a solid foundation, consider an intensive, multi-day corporate board preparation course like those offered by top business and law schools.
  4. Women, seek out specialised opportunities:

The more I study boards, the more I wish I had realised their importance when I was an executive. Boards need you, and if you have the passion, insights and drive to succeed in leadership roles, you’ll want more challenges after you leave corporate employment.

And remember: any insights you gain, whether or not you aim to become a board director, will help you become more strategic and valuable to your organisation throughout your tenure. You’ll become even more effective at what you and I have known all along is essential to business performance: thoughtful, planful and effective human capital management.


The author, Jenny Dearborn is the CEO of Actionable Analytics Group, and has been recognised as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Tech. Most recently, she was the EVP HR and Global Head of Talent, Leadership, Organisational Effectiveness & Learning at SAP, where she was responsible for the talent management and organisational development of more than 95,000 employees worldwide.

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