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Talent-Smart Boards – in conversation with Donna M. Hughes

The ability to attract, develop, and retain talent has always been an intrinsic part of any organization’s strategy for success. Yet, in the past, organizations have been slow to consider human resource experts for corporate board seats. This is changing. As mitigating human capital risks has become more of a focal point for companies, boards have been challenged to include culture, succession planning, diversity, equity and inclusion, and other talent-related matters, to their many oversight responsibilities. Accordingly, being “talent-smart” is an important consideration for corporate boards in all industries and at all stages of the business. And companies keen on raising the bar when it comes to talent-related discussions, are now adding human resource executives to their corporate boards.

We are in conversation with Donna M. Hughes — an established C-suite human resources executive, executive coach, lawyer, and business-oriented leader. Donna brings to the (board) table a variety of expertise and a unique amalgamation of ideas. In this interview, she shares her views on the importance of having talent professionals on boards and their unique benefit points.

Donna, as someone who works with boards on their effectiveness and succession planning, and presents to boards on subjects such as executive compensation, diversity, equity and inclusion, culture, etc. what added value do you believe human resource executives bring to a corporate board? You view boards and organizations holistically and focus on aspects like strategy, risk mitigation, and so on. How does this set you apart from other board members and why is your viewpoint necessary?

“Traditionally, organizations have been interested in attracting former CEOs, CFOs, and the like to their boards and for obvious reasons. But boards are now realizing that it’s not possible to have a meaningful discussion about the business strategy without discussing how talent fits into that strategy. For all discussions, a diverse board offers a unique blend of perspectives, ideas, and curiosity that go far beyond what is possible for a more homogeneous board. And talent experts, in particular, bring a diverse perspective that can fill the gaps on human capital-related matters. There are many situations in which boards need that perspective, for example, if they are going through a merger and acquisition — an area I have a lot of experience in. To be successful, a merger requires the retention of key leadership, the integration of two or more cultures, and mitigation of many potential human capital risks and costs, while coming together as a whole. The failure to adequately assess and solve for these key considerations could significantly affect the anticipated synergies, and ultimately, the valuation of the deal. Human resource executives are in tune with these considerations and instinctively probe into these areas. Another example is what we are currently experiencing, dubbed the “Great Resignation”. Employees have choices; to stay or not stay in the labor market, to job hop, to join the gig economy, to retire early, etc. Companies are experiencing attrition at rates not seen before. We are in a war for talent and human resource experts are uniquely positioned to support the organization as it responds to a crisis that could have long-range effects.”

“In order to stay competitive, organizations continuously strive to improve their services and products. Well, it’s just as important to continuously enhance the employee experience. Satisfied employees are more engaged, more committed to the goals of the organization, and less likely to consider a job elsewhere. A positive work culture is key to attracting and retaining the right talent and building high-performing teams. Hence, “talent-smart” boards, or boards in which talent experts have a seat at the table, are of utmost importance.”

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