Business experience is key to boardroom

HR professionals need to broaden their experience if they want to get to the top of business and sit on the board, according to leading HR directors.

Delegates at the Economist HR Directors Summit in London heard that getting experience in different departments would transform HR professionals into businessmen and women.

David Longbottom, HR director at Dixons, said HR people wanting to sit on the board should demand a move to another function as soon as possible. He sits on a board of three people at the company, along with the director of finance and the chief executive.

“If you are not numerate and don’t like numbers, please don’t aspire to get to the top,” he said. “Justify investments rather than trying to justify your existence.”

Paul Knowles, general HR manager at Siemens Business Services, said this meant getting to the top because of personal acumen and not for being in HR.

“Broader experience means when you reach board level you will be comfortable contributing,” he said.

Jacques Espinasse, chief financial officer at Vivendi Universal, put it in starker terms. “At the top level, someone who has not been a business person themselves won’t be able to handle it,” he said.

William Gibbon, HR director of Barclays Africa and winner of last year’s Personnel Today HR director of the year award, recommended that HR directors question who they should work with.

“Your primary team should be the company’s executive committee,” he said. “Your secondary team should be the HR function.”

Michael Mercier, vice-president HR at US firm Progress Software, said the HR profession needed to be brave and speak its mind.

“HR has a victim mentality – when this stops then change will come,” he said.

Does HR need to sit on the board?


“If you are going to be a valuable player you have to be seen at the top table. It’s not the right thing to do to put a businessman on the board who just has a feel for the subject [of people management].”
David Longbottom, HR director, Dixons

“We would not run a boardroom without a financial director and it should be the same for HR. The difficulty is making sure HR has the right business acumen and ambition – it’s tough at the top.”
Rene Carayol, conference chair and CEO of Carayol


“I have no ambition to be on the board. I report to the chief executive of the business unit and I sit on the highest executive committees. You don’t need anything else.”
Neil Roden, group director HR, Royal Bank of Scotland

“The issue is not whether the HR guys should be at the top table, the issue is does the HR guy and the team know what the [company] strategy is and do they make it their own?”
Jacques Espinasse, chief financial officer, Vivendi Universal

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