Moving from HRD to NED: Top tips

If you’re in a senior HR executive position, you may be considering taking on a non-executive directorship (NED), either to help strengthen your skills in your day job, add variety, or because you have a long-term plan of moving into a portfolio career.

The opportunity for people leaders to add value to boards has never been greater, as conversations around the table are covering people and culture issues more regularly and seriously. This is thanks in part to the revised UK Corporate Governance Code, which requires PLCs to explain how they are engaging with their workforce and capturing employee voice, but also a growing realisation that the people agenda needs to be viewed through the strategic lens of risk and opportunity.

In the CIPD’s first HR Leader Network event of 2020, we brought together a panel of former group HRDs who have stepped into NED roles in PLCs – Celia Baxter, Anne Minto and Lynne Weedall – and Korn Ferry partner Chris Smith to share insights on moving from an executive HR position into a NED role. Here are some of their top tips…

Start thinking about it early

The hardest NED role to land is your first, because you are not a tried and tested quantity. That means it’s often sensible to find your first position while in an executive role. Don’t fool yourself about the time commitment. It will be intense and you have to really want it – be honest with yourself. The commitment required means you will need to have a supportive CEO who understands that taking on the extra role will be a great developmental opportunity for you, and allow you bring new knowledge and skills back to the organisation. 

Expand your exec portfolio

While chairmen are becoming increasingly open to HR experience in their NEDs, having clear demonstrations of your experience beyond HR will be invaluable. Can you expand your executive portfolio to include other areas such as strategy, communications, CSR or IT (technology skills are the Holy Grail for boards)? Can you put yourself forward to lead projects outside of the people function to show your breadth of experience?

Finding the right role for you

Being a NED, especially in a listed organisation, is a big commitment. You need to do it in an organisation that fits with your personal values and one in which you like the chairman, other board members and executive. You will be working very closely with these people, so if you meet the chairman and just don’t click, it’s far better to be honest with the headhunter early. It’s hard to know the reality of the organisation and board dynamics before you join, but a good clue is how well respected the chairman is in the market. If they have a great reputation, you are probably onto a winner.

Find your supporters

As in executive life, having mentors and sponsors is critical in helping you move into the right role and make the right connections. Think about which executives in your career have supported you in your career and be sure to maintain these relationships. These people are often the ones who have challenged you the most, as that has pushed you to grow.  

You are not the ‘HR person’ on the board

Just because you come from an HR background does not mean you should behave as the designated HR expert on the board. Doing so because it feels like comfortable territory is not a recipe for success and risks pigeonholing you. You will be expected to engage and contribute on the entire business agenda, so you need to be financially literate. You might even want to hold back from getting too involved in the ‘people stuff’ at first, to demonstrate what else you can offer…

HR skills are relevant

…that said, the specialist HR skills you have developed in your executive career will come in handy. Remuneration experience is obviously key, with many former HRDs becoming RemCo chairs. Your HR background will also help you with CEO succession, one of the most important jobs a board has to do. And culture expertise means CHROs can add value to discussions about the new Corporate Governance Code requirements. High EQ and having a deep understanding of human behaviour are also bonuses for people professionals. It gives you a head-start in understanding board and ExCo dynamics (something the chair will be particularly interested in).

Don’t stray into exec territory

You are not there to be an executive and it is important to maintain the distinction and have clear boundaries. You might feel you would do things differently to the executive HR director, but it is not your place to take over and start doing their job for them. Once you join, you may feel you need to start expressing strong opinions right away – but take your time. Get to know the business first and build relationships with your fellow board members, rather than trying to make a name for yourself in your very first meeting.

HR needs to lean in

There has never been a greater opportunity for CHROs to be involved with board discussions, whether as execs or non-execs. In your exec role, are you leaning into this? If there is a CEO succession process going on, are you heavily involved? Are you getting exposure to the board in discussions around compliance with the Corporate Governance Code? Whether or not you want to become a non-exec in future, now is the time to add maximum value in your exec role.

To express interest in joining the CIPD HR Leaders’ Network, contact Katie Jacobs on Please note this network is for in-house HR directors only.

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