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Directing Professional Ambition

Bob Little 

October 7, 2016

Seen from the outside, there’s a popular impression that one of the characteristics of the L&D world – and its slightly more far-reaching sibling, the HR world – is that those who populate it lack ambition.

Those who hold this view point to the fact that L&D, and even HR, professionals are consistently under-represented on companies’ main boards. That CHRO (chief human resources officer) and CL&DO (chief learning and development officer) posts aren’t as plentiful as those for, say, CFO (chief finance officer) or CMO (chief marketing officer) is seen as an indication that HR and L&D professionals are dedicated to their vocation and so, almost by definition, lack any desire for advancement.

Yet it’s not entirely unknown for L&D professionals to achieve a boardroom seat. Moreover, signs of ambition – to achieve such a position and to use it to improve working conditions as well as L&D opportunities for the organization’s people – are increasingly being noticed among L&D professionals.

The former Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.”

History provides numerous examples of those, including Napoleon, whose ambition led to pain, hardship and even disaster for whole nations. But ambition – correctly channeled – can be a major personal motivating force and bring benefits to others, too. As the American labor leader Cesar Chavez said, “We cant seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

Encouragingly – for HR/L&D professionals – HR Magazine recently revealed that, while executive boardroom positions for HR/L&D professionals may be limited, the tide seems to be slowly turning for those who’re looking for non-executive director (NED) roles.

Anna Penfold, executive director at the search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, says that organizations are increasing their focus on HR in the boardroom now. This is because they are looking for a broader mix of leadership skills to be represented on the board. She believes that CHROs bring a focus to any business decision on what it means for people.

Slowly, the influential role that an HRD (human resources director) can play is increasing, she says. However, as boards become “leaner,” they’re reducing their number of executives. This, though, offers an opportunity for L&D/HR professionals to take up NED roles.

Helen Pitcher, the chairwoman of Advanced Boardroom Excellence, a company that’s focused on individual and collective director effectiveness, says, “The fact that HR professionals aren’t instantly valued as great board material is senseless. They should be up there in contention as NEDs on a regular basis.”

Kathryn Horton, the owner of training and business development company Turning Factor, says, Only last year I – as an L&D professional – was invited onto the board of a manufacturing business, to sit as a NED. It gives a great dynamic to the leadership team and, in the board meetings, I’m the specialist empowered to challenge the business’ leadership, people, values, and engagement.

The success of business today is based upon the success of its people. A business may have the best technology, the best position in the market, and the greatest of opportunity but, if its people aren’t engaged, if they work in silos, and/or if theres a lack of leadership, then the business will find it harder to achieve its goals.

I don’t believe that business leaders really understand the true cost of underperformance – and the root cause of many issues stems around a lack of leadership and management in the business.

Kathy’s tips for getting on the board, as an L&D professional, are that you do all you can to avoid being seen as a typical” HR/L&D professional woolly” and of little substance.”

She says, “That means you need to be a strategic thinker. You need a clear understanding of the ‘business’ side of the organization as well as understanding the financials, because this understanding will provide HR/L&D with compelling cases for the work in their function.

The role of an HR/L&D professional as an executive or non-executive board member is vital. If a business is going to make a change be it re-structuring, entering new markets, or developing new products itll have a major impact on its people. This needs to be understood and strategically planned at the highest level.

Another challenge we face is that many HR/L&D professionals are women and, unfortunately, women still suffer with the challenge of gender inequality.

“In addition to this, the HR/L&D function is too often seen as an overhead to the business when, in fact, its the function that can have the biggest impact on bottom-line business costs. Theres much talk, these days, aboutengagement,’ with statistics showing that an engaged workforce can increase productivity and margins by over 20 percent.”

In addition to holding other roles, Nigel Hopkins is chairman of the board of trustees of Instructus Group, a group of companies that focus on the L&D sector – including apprenticeships, women’s development, continuous process improvement and management development in the manufacturing industry, and a professional institute in the paralegal sector. Nigel says that, through these organizations, the Group helps to develop the skills of some 250,000 people around the world.

He advises, “While ambition and drive play their part, if, as an HR or L&D professional, you want to get on a board, you must have experience of areas of the business other than HR and L&D. This could include operations, sales and so on.

“How L&D and HR people prepare themselves for that journey is the challenge. Years ago, finance specialists faced the same challenge – and they seem to have found the answer.

So, if you want to join a board – in any capacity – you have to prepare to do so through your career experience. Moreover, you have to be able to succeed in those roles – and that means you must have a clear career plan.”

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