Barry Hoffman is a former FTSE 100 chief people officer (most recently for LandSec), who has built a portfolio of non-executive positions, including as NED and RemCo chair at technology company Actual Experience plc and NED at housing group Stonewater.

“When I very first joined a board, I thought I was there to tell people what I thought,” recalls Barry. “But instead, my role is to support, ask questions, make introductions, listen and constructively challenge… I am still learning.”

His first piece of advice for HR leaders who would like to follow a similar career path is to be realistic, patient and resilient when it comes to finding the right non-executive role. “It takes time; it can take a good 18 to 24 months,” he explains. “You have to be very resilient as you get a lot of rejections, there’s a lot of competition, and you have to be patient – NED roles don’t come around every five minutes.”

You also need to be thoughtful: “You can’t just rock up and say: ‘Here I am.’ You need to know why you’d be useful to a board. And select your role carefully: you will be there for six years.” That means learning to say ‘no’ to opportunities that aren’t right. While Barry believes networks are no longer the reason why people get positions, that doesn’t mean that networking isn’t crucial. “It’s vital for developing confidence, curiosity and a good awareness of business in general.” And being able to bring that external viewpoint is a big value driver.

In his interaction with boards as an executive, and now as a non-executive, he has seen an increasingly strong interest in people matters, partly driven by the rise of employee activism. Although he notes, “Board agendas too often get squeezed, data can be ignored in favour of anecdote and short-term drivers can take precedence.” The best chairs, he adds, will work hard through nomination and remuneration committees, in partnership with the CPO, to give the people agenda appropriate airtime.

Board colleagues often look to him for experience in people matters, but he no longer feels like a CPO. “I feel like a board member with all the responsibilities that brings. I probably comment on commercial matters more than I do on people matters. I try not to ‘own’ the people agenda, as all board colleagues need to equally take ownership. I can’t sit back and relax when it comes to audits or budgets, assuming the accountants in the room have got it covered, so it is the same for people matters.”

Barry’s top tips

  • Looking for a role requires patience and resilience.
  • Keep your network wide and active.
  • Don’t assume ownership of the people agenda: everyone should be accountable. 

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