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Directors Roundtable: What Board Directors Need from HR Now

June 4, 2021

Building a productive relationship with directors is crucial to CHROs succeeding in their roles. What are the key insights and lessons from board members? Adam Bryant, Directors Roundtable Editor, interviewed three veteran board directors on their advice for HR leaders who are faced with an ever-growing list of responsibilities. Their comments were edited for space and woven together in a roundtable format.

This article was published in print and online in the Spring 2021 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy. 

By Adam Bryant



  • Beth Comstock, Board Director at Nike and former Vice Chair of GE
  • Helene Gayle, Board Director at The Coca-Cola Company and Colgate Palmolive, and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust
  • George Barrett, Board Director at Target, and former Chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health


People + Strategy: How has your thinking evolved about what directors expect from CHROs?

George Barrett: The pandemic has elevated many big questions that require CHROs to be particularly attentive to all that is happening around us. How do you create in your organization a center of truth, a command center that can guide decision-making in challenging times? Are our people safe and do they feel safe? Is this applied equitably? There are new questions about the impact that working remotely will have on the culture of the organization. How do we keep focused on our mission? What is it doing to retention? These challenges about safety and culture naturally sit with the CHRO’s role, and they put a premium on effective communication.

As a result, you’ll find many new issues that rise to the top of the organization and quite possibly to the board. How do employees feel about being a part of the organization? If they’re unhappy, or if there’s a source of toxicity somewhere in the organization, it will rise to the board’s attention faster than in years past, in part because of social media. These are enormously important risk-management discussions. The HR function helps to frame and develop strategies to address these issues.

The CHRO has to have fantastic antennae, and they should be measuring the temperature of the organization all the time. Directors may be asking for new kinds of measurements about cultural health. Those are increasingly important because you can’t ask an organization to care about and prioritize these things and then not measure them and provide feedback on how the company is doing. In some cases, it may make sense to tie those measurements to compensation and reward systems for the most senior leaders.

Helene Gayle: The expectations of CHROs have risen as we have come to better understand the importance of focusing on people. Companies and organizations have said forever that our talent is our greatest asset, but as the recent challenges have shown, if companies aren’t investing in their people, culture, values and all the things that support that, including incentive systems, then they are going to falter.

As we have elevated culture, and as we’ve elevated the role of succession planning, the CHRO has taken on added importance and centrality. But we have to make sure we’re not putting too much on the CHRO beyond what is realistic. Another issue that has elevated the role of CHRO, particularly in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, has been understanding diversity and equity as an important enabler of culture.


“Boards and leadership teams are increasingly expecting the HR leader to be the touchpoint on culture and culture change. HR is facing more pressure to help drive transformation efforts through culture change.” —Beth Comstock



P+S: What’s your advice for HR leaders on how to handle the many pressures they face?

Beth Comstock: It’s certainly an expanding portfolio for the HR leader. As somebody who’s been a student of change in organizations, I’m seeing that boards and leadership teams are increasingly expecting the HR leader to be the touchpoint on culture and culture change. It’s one thing to have a business strategy, but HR is facing more pressure to help drive transformation efforts through culture change.

But HR does haven’t take them all on by itself. You need help from the entire C-suite. The CEO and the CHRO have to re-evaluate how they connect. I’ve been fortunate being on the board of Nike. During the pandemic, we got a new CEO in John Donahoe, who’s very focused on people and culture, as is Monique Matheson, the head of HR. They made themselves very available with one-on-ones, town halls and small group meetings.

Good teams don’t just leave it up to HR, but HR can be the amplifier of what’s possible and what’s good. There is a growing need in companies for culture communications. With COVID-19, everything has become an accelerated feedback loop. We need to communicate how people are navigating challenges and provide guardrails for what’s expected of them and what’s not expected of them. Those communications, including external platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, also can be used provide encouragement and motivation, especially during tough times. There’s a continual need for people who are comfortable telling stories and not just giving out facts and figures.


P+S: What are other dos and don’ts as CHROs navigate challenging times like these?

Barrett: CHROs are naturally going to be flooded with information, some of it hard and disquieting. They have to be able, as Ronnie Heifitz wrote, to work seamlessly between the balcony and the dance floor, to see their organizations with some sense of breadth and context. All of this requires good relationships with other members of the leadership team.

You can’t be reactive to everything because it is such a challenging environment. As humans, it is a natural reflex for us to react. Having a CHRO who is capable of catching their breath and stepping back to gain context is important.

In today’s environment, the ropes separating everyone’s swim lanes have been pulled away—while good CEOs understand that, it often requires that the CHRO take the initiative and create clarity about who should be on point. In these moments, good teams are going to show their effectiveness. The CHRO is critical in making that happen.


“We’ve learned during the pandemic that the executives who demonstrate resilience—the ability to pivot, stay centered and be clear about how they create value for the organization—set themselves apart.” —George Barrett


Gayle: I would advise them to prioritize depending on the greatest needs of the organization, and then focus on the things that will have the greatest impact. That includes saying no to the things that might distract you from focusing on the highest priorities for the organization. And “no” can be a tough word, especially for executives who are doers and who tend to want to be able to help as many people as possible. But if you’re not able to be selective and to prioritize based on the needs of the organization at any given point in time, you’re not going to be successful.

It’s a delicate dance that has to be worked out between the CEO and the CHRO so they share a clear understanding of the highest priorities for the organization, as well as what can be delegated to others on the leadership team.

As a board member, I want to know the CHRO’s highest priorities, as well as the top priorities of the head of talent, so that I can help them. That’s the way HR leaders can have the greatest success with their boards—by being really clear about what they’re prioritizing so that we can be mutually supportive.


P+S: Companies are becoming like stand-ins for government agencies and expected to solve all manner of broader societal issues. What does that mean for HR in terms of managing those stakeholders and the employees’ voices?

Gayle: Companies can’t weigh in on everything because some issues may not be relevant to their business. If companies are opining on everything, it minimizes the impact when a company does make a statement about an issue. People believe it more, internally and externally, when those statements are aligned with both the business and the company’s stated values. Otherwise, it won’t seem authentic.


P+S: How do you develop a feel of the culture of the companies that you are overseeing as a director?

Gayle: One way is using pulse surveys on engagement, satisfaction levels and the work environment, and following patterns and trends that give you a sense of whether the culture is healthy and safe. When we are back to doing in-person meetings, you learn a lot from the people who are presenting to the board, particularly those who aren’t necessarily the most senior.

Visits to meet with different groups of employees are also effective for helping you to get a feel for the culture a bit beneath the leadership team. With the boards I’m on, our CEOs encourage us to take the time when we’re traveling to visit different work sites.

Comstock: I expect to see more than the annual survey. You want the opportunity to spend time with each of the key division leaders. Those conversations are not just about revenue and profit. What are they doing to develop their talent? What have they done during COVID-19 to help relieve some of the stress on their team? You’re looking for an emotional intelligence of the operating team to understand how well they’ve adapted to these challenging times.

You also learn as a director that you’re only as good as the information you’re given. The more information that management gives you, the better you can see patterns and ask more informed questions about what people are feeling inside the organization. Good leaders share what they’re learning in their meetings and town halls, including the tough questions they’re getting and how they may have solved some problems that could have become bigger.


P+S: What does a great CHRO look like for you? What are the things to avoid? 

Comstock: You can’t be the chief of everything else. No one can. You need help. You need to be the convener of the C-suite to pull people together and ask for help. You need to say, “A lot is expected of both of us. Here’s what I can do, here’s where I need your help, here’s what we can do together.” You need to create that dynamic.

Those are sometimes painful discussions, but you have to be comfortable saying, “No, this is not what HR does anymore.” You can start off by saying, “Here’s what we think our mandate is. Do you agree? What’s missing? What falls away?” Every company will define it differently, but you have to start with those foundational questions.

You do need those feedback loops to build a cultural health report card. It’s not that HR has to fix it all, but they’re the ones who have to hold the mirror up and say here’s where and here’s how. Finally, I’d say that CHROs do have to spend some time outside their organization. You need good ideas. You need to understand how other people have solved problems. You need to understand what the broader trends are in business, so that five years from now, you have a clear sense of what HR means in your company and what’s required to adapt and change.

You need to signal to the organization that you’re open to change. A criticism of too many HR organizations in the past is that they were stuck in their ways. That happens to many functions. You don’t want that to happen to you. You want to be the one who is helping to push your company to the uncomfortable realities of what’s ahead.

Right now, there’s so much discussion on the future of work. We’ve just been drop-kicked into the future during the pandemic. Suddenly, all these things we talked about, such as remote work, are here. How are you going to use this opportunity to create the change and the vitality you need?


“I want to know the CHRO’s highest priorities. That’s the way HR leaders can have the greatest success with their boards—by being clear about what they’re prioritizing so that we can be mutually supportive.”—Helene Gayle



P+S: What muscles do HR leaders need to build to be prepared for the role five years from now?

Barrett: It may be interesting for a high-potential HR professional to think about moving into another area with the goal of coming back to being the senior human resources officer. It may be out of their comfort zone and in an area that’s not a traditional part of their training, but it may turn out to be valuable experience.

For all top executives right now, it’s no longer just about horsepower. It’s about adaptive capacity. We’ve learned during the pandemic that the executives who demonstrate resilience—the ability to pivot and stay centered and be clear about how they create value for the organization—set themselves apart.

Given that the world is changing so quickly in so many disruptive ways, the top CHROs will have the capacity to be reasonably comfortable with that pressure on their shoulders, and not see it as pressure.

Gayle: The goal is to be a good business partner and understand the business. I have been in organizations, and on boards, where it’s not always clear that the HR professional is truly a business partner and understands how the people function needs to enable the broader business. The HR needs of the future may be very different on the other side of this pandemic. It’s about seeing around corners and thinking about what the people function and the organization needs as the world continues to change.


P+S: Final advice for any HR leaders trying to contend with all the “chief of everything else” challenges they are facing?

Comstock: After I left GE, I was called in to advise the head of HR at a very large company. We were having a discussion with her senior team, and one of them looked at me and said, “But you don’t understand. I have to know everything. I’m HR.” And I said, “No, you don’t. Why do you think you have to know everything and do everything and be everywhere? You are going to fail.”

It’s an outdated HR perspective. My advice is to develop your ecosystem and your network. Find other people who can share the burden and become your feedback loops. You are the convener. You can help make those decisions, but I do worry that people are burned out for that sheer reason that they think they to know everything. They don’t.