The best Group HRDs understand the importance of independence. “You have to provide a safe environment for your CEO and executive team to test ideas; to think about things out loud; to be challenged,” says Barry Hoffman, Group HRD at Computacenter.
It’s also about objectivity. “You mustn’t have an axe to grind. You can’t be political, where you lobby for one part of the business or impose your own views and judgement,” he adds. “My CEO wants to be challenged; he wants to be pushed a bit; he wants to be argued with sometimes, but all from a completely objective point of view.”
To do this effectively, the HRD has to be well-informed and strategically aware. Kim Horsburgh, Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, explains: “To provide credible challenge to their CEO, HRDs need to be very knowledgeable about the business. They have to understand its strategy, customers and how it operates.
“It’s much broader than the traditional HR remit. But, with the privileged view that HRDs have across the whole organisation, they really are in the best place to be the sounding Board that a CEO needs.”
At the same, the Group HRD has to build strong relationships with the other members of the senior leadership team. Nicky Pattimore, Employee Experience Director at City & Guilds Group, comments: “If they were asking for my help and support in confidence, then they knew I wouldn’t share that. You need to have that judgement as an HRD in terms of the conversations you’re having; what you keep confidential; and what you share.”
There is also a clear duty to “call-out” behaviours that are regarded as unacceptable. Julie Harding, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Trustee at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, says: “When an HRD hears about the poor behaviour of a senior leader – it could be shouting, being rude, making personal comments – they have a responsibility to think about whether it was a one off, as the person was having a bad day, or part of a continuing pattern.
“They also have a responsibility to decide what to do about it; whether it’s to have a conversation with the individual or to escalate to the CEO.”
If the problem is serious enough, it may need to be raised directly with the Board. Earlier in Nicky's career, a business she was in wanted to reallocate money from a junior-grade reward pot to fund senior team bonuses. "From both integrity and governance perspectives that wasn’t something they were allowed to do," Nicky says. "In my role as an HR Director, I’m there to serve the business first and foremost, and so I have to escalate things – I can't stand by and watch them happen."
It isn’t just during times of difficulty that HRDs should be working alongside the Board. Increasingly, Chairs and independent directors want assurance around leadership development, succession, incentive schemes and the overall sustainability of the talent strategy.
This can be tough for a first-time Group HRD. Peter Blausten, Managing Director at Alvarez & Marsal, says: “You are a member of the Executive Committee, predominantly recruited by the Chief Exec, and so a lot of your day-to-day work is about making those people, and the company, successful from that perspective. It can take a while, especially for new Group HRDs, to realise they have a role in relation to the Board and how to credibly occupy that space.”
Inevitably, discussions about remuneration and bonuses are a “pinch point”. Peter explains: “Boards often value an independent line, not only from external remuneration advisors – they also want their HRD to have an opinion. Group HR Directors tend not to be respected when they can’t show independence in those discussions.”
Ultimately, independence is a choice, but it’s exercised most effectively by HRDs who have earned trust and respect from the CEO and Chair. Julie notes: “If you always focus on what’s best for the business, never compromise on your values, and you’re objective and transparent, then you build your personal credibility. That enables you to be independent as an HRD.”