How top CHROs navigate board relationships
Corporate governance is changing. Boards of directors are expected to be more deeply involved across a wider range of business management and operational issues than ever before. In turn, directors with HR skills are increasingly in demand. For a current or aspiring Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) looking to advance their agenda and move the needle for their organization, this presents both opportunities and challenges.
At Culture First Americas 2022, panel host Fidelma Butler (Vice President of Talent & Organization Development at Zendesk) sat down with Anna Binder (Head of People at Asana and a member of Culture Amp’s board), Edweena Stratton (Chief People Officer at Culture Amp), and Mai Ton (then CHRO in Residence at Charter). Together, they discussed the relationship between HR leadership and corporate boards, the impact and influence both can have on each other, and how they are personally navigating – and taking advantage of – this new reality.
Read on for the top takeaways and insights from their enlightening conversation that you can apply to your own board relationships.
A CHRO’s relationship with the board can take different forms
When it comes to how CHROs can interact with the boards that govern them, there are a number of options – and opportunities. Anna identified three ways she engages with Asana’s board:
1. Connecting culture to business results.
Anna describes her role as “making sure that they [the board] understand how we think about culture and our investment in people programs, what outcomes we're seeking to drive, and how those outcomes connect with what all my other colleagues on the executive team are doing.” By communicating this information, she demonstrates the business value of people operations, giving her entire department credibility and a seat at the table.
2. Partnering with the board on recruitment initiatives.
On a semi-annual basis, Anna performs a gap analysis of the skills, capabilities, and experiences the board is missing in relation to where Asana is going as a business. She works with the chair to determine how the board needs to look a year or two in the future, who they should recruit, and on what timeline.
3. Serving as people partner to the CEO
Anna never forgets the importance of the CEO and CHRO relationship. She considers herself part of the CEO's team and knows that the board is the CEO’s boss in many respects. In service of that relationship, she regularly connects with the CEO to think through how to best influence the board’s direction.
5 ways to strengthen your board relationships
The panel discussed several steps HR leaders can take to build meaningful relationships with corporate boards. They include:
1. Get to know the board members as individuals
Beyond interacting with the board as an entity, Fidelma stressed the importance of getting to know each director on an individual level, as different personalities tend to govern in different ways.
She shared that she recently found herself in a conversation with two Zendesk board members who wanted to talk performance management. One of the directors showed up to the virtual meeting buttoned-up and serious, expressing interest in challenging employees to perform at a higher level and pushing managers to evaluate employee performance more strictly. The other connected from his sofa, eating a popsicle, and wondering if the company was being too tough from a performance management perspective.
Fidelma realized she was dealing with two distinct mindsets and worked to find a middle ground and data, so that both board members would feel comfortable with where they ended up. Getting to know the board members personally can help you navigate their preferences and priorities.
2. Establish trust and set boundaries
Mai, who’s served as an HR leader at eight different startups, credits her success working with boards to being as transparent as possible about the health and direction of her department. As she earns the board’s trust, she makes it clear what she expects in return:
“I have said that I will tell you when something's terribly wrong, but don't interfere with the day-to-day.”
In that way, she has been able to balance her obligation to the board with her obligation to protect her team.
3. Get culture a seat at the table
Some boards still don’t have workplace culture or employee engagement on their radar, but Mai rejects the notion that it’s from lack of interest.
“It's not that they don't care,” she said. “It's that there are too many dimensions of the business for them to focus on.”
To help direct the focus of the boards she’s worked with, Mai ensures the single slide she is allocated during board meetings is impactful and indicative of the theme or issue she wants to communicate. Often, for her, that means focusing on engagement scores and participation rates, with clean arrow iconography that shows an up or down trend.
By tying metrics like these to a larger business goal, you can make a clear case for culture. Anna believes mapping out exactly how culture initiatives drive business results or support the company’s mission is the most powerful way to win board members over:
“That's why we're here. I am a really nice person, and I do care about humans, but I do believe that the energy that we put into building, evolving, and strengthening the culture will drive the business forward. I am a business person, and I think speaking in that way with that language is what brings people along.”
4. Put accountability for culture and engagement on the agenda
Responsibility for culture and employee engagement tends to fall squarely – and solely – on the shoulders of HR leaders, but leaders across the organization can all play a crucial role in shaping the experiences of their teams. By working with the board, you have the opportunity to formalize this shared responsibility.
“I was always left holding the bag on turnover, engagement numbers – everything fell to our People Team,” explained Mai. “And I just didn't think it was sustainable nor fair. So, I worked with the board and the CEO at my last three companies to say, ‘Part of the bonus component of an executive's incentive plan has to be based on the engagement score. I can effect the change and hopefully work on culture as a group and as a team, but your leaders need to take responsibility for what's going on in their department.’”
Mai was successful in tying 25% of executive bonuses to the health of the company’s engagement score. She called it her quickest win to institutionalize more accountability.
5. Share your knowledge and experience
HR leaders’ skill sets are varied, and the value they bring to boards doesn’t have to be limited to offering a people-ops perspective. So, don’t be afraid to lend the knowledge and wisdom you’ve accumulated – even if it technically falls outside your “wheelhouse.”
“I've got a ton of opinions and thoughts, not just about people and culture,” said Edweena. “I am very interested and have lots of context and experience around how to run a business in terms of things like go-to-market … I can add the best value with my business knowledge that I've amassed over a number of years. And that's my job: to stay relevant … [to] understand what's happening … in the external market, so I can bring a lens and some context, not just on people and culture, but the business.”
She went on to say that she believes culture is what unlocks business performance, but that understanding both is how HR leaders make their mark.
Remember that everyone is on a learning journey
Edweena, who only began working with boards this past year, advises against the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality. There is no shame in being new to an environment and admitting when you don’t know or don’t understand something. Asking for help and surrounding yourself with people who know the right answer is the sign of a great leader.
You may feel more comfortable asking questions and acknowledging your shortcomings if you keep in mind that you’re not alone. In some form or another, every member of your executive team and every director on your board feels behind on some subject or skill.
“We're all growing. We're all learning different skills at different times in our career,” she said.