Posted almost 7 years ago by Elisa Nardi

HR in the Boardroom: Character Traits and Intelligence


​Last week the keynote speaker for Career Moves' HR In The Boardroom event discussed the nature and range of collaborations an HR professional might have with a Board.

This week Elisa introduces us to the key character traits and intelligences that are personally needed to build successful Board relationships – both advising a Board and sitting on the Board itself.

If I were given a pound for every young HR professional I have spoken to, who at the start of their career, ‘didn’t fancy’ a shared service environment but aspired to be an HR Business Partner, I would be a very rich lady indeed.  I have often wondered what HR might look like today if David Ulrich hadn’t presented us with the HR model that cemented business partnering, centres of expertise and shared services or operations as the best way to structure our talent.

For in this rush to ‘business partner’ – which the CIPD define as the ‘process whereby HR professionals work closely with business leaders and/or line managers to achieve shared organisational objectives, in particular designing and implementing HR systems and processes that support strategic business aims’, I fear we have missed something profoundly important.

Business partnering at any level in the organisation is not just about ‘what’ you know, but is fundamentally about ‘how’ you apply it.

Having the right character and attitude for the job therefore matters as much [dare I say, more] than all the knowledge and experience you can cram into your head. Thus I have seen HR professionals with years of experience really struggle to influence and impact their line colleagues, lesser experienced HR professionals with the right character do surprisingly well and a whole host of other enthusiasts who have read the ‘manual’ but have little experience or the necessary gravitas to really make a difference.

I have sat in front of countless HR professionals, talking about the things I look for in a good business partner – and more often than not; I end up talking about character and judgement ahead of talking about ‘core competencies’. Don’t get me wrong – knowing your stuff is important, as is understanding the business and how it works. But knowing yourself, being aware of others and how to influence them will help you far more than being a technical expert.  Being able to tune into the dynamics of a team environment, to sense politics, to show restraint as well as energy and enthusiasm – these are all critical considerations. And at the top of the organisation you are business partner to your CEO and the Board.

I mention this because recognising it early in your career will set you up for so much more success as you progress into larger and more exposed roles, both as a business partner or functional expert.

What character traits and intelligences are needed to be an effective partner to the Board or indeed on the Board itself?

Let’s look at intelligences first and by this I mean those things that are the foundation of sound personal judgement – both about tasks and people. If you want a richer definition take a look at the website for The Thinking Partnership [TTP] who have a proven character strengths and intelligences approach to leadership assessment and development. I have worked with TTP for many years and remain infinitely fascinated by what they have to say.

At the top of my list is political intelligence – the ability to tune into what is going on – to read a room and judge or spot any political agendas around the Boardroom table. Being interested in others and knowing quickly who has what power and why, is an important skill when interacting with your Board and senior team. Handling political issues diplomatically, sometimes confidentially and always with tact is also of paramount importance. It’s partly about using your intuition and instinct to test and appreciate the atmosphere.

Intellectual horsepower or analytic intelligence is a must because you will need to be able to absorb, prepare and present data well if you are to influence a Board. Boards need good data and insight on which to make their decisions.  

Thinking about the possibilities that data provides and having insight or detail at your fingertips can often provide that all important check and balance that helps a Board draw its conclusions and make sound judgements.

It is important that you have a strong command of the issues relevant to the business and how these issues link to matters concerning people and HR.

Emotional Intelligence

You won’t be surprised to find emotional intelligence [EI] or empathy on my list of key intelligences. The intelligence goes hand in hand with political sensitivity and requires you to know yourself as well as have a keen interest in understanding others. Daniel Goleman once summarized EI as the coming together of several leadership traits – coaching, pacesetting, being participative, affiliative, visionary and directive. Great if you are good at them all but I’ll take coaching and being participative if I could only choose two! On a Board, tuning into the team dynamic is key. But know yourself and be clear about your own skills and competencies [do not pretend to be an expert if you are not because you will always be found out!].  Be self-aware.  Be aware so that you can read others, coach others and put yourself in their shoes to manage dynamics and avoid issues before they arise.

Character Traits

Your character traits are those things that relate to you as a human being – the Oxford English Dictionary defines character as ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual’ – I rather like that.  Think of character as qualities that define you – your energy, focus and dependability – all that we value about each other.

Courage is a wonderful and often misunderstood character trait and is about bravery, self-belief and risk-taking.  Having the courage to stay silent, as well as speak up, however, is something worth thinking about around the Boardroom table.

Having courage on a 1:1 basis with key members of the Board, like the Chair, is where you will probably need to employ it the most. Courage will help you question, probe and challenge appropriately.

You will also need bags of good judgement and perspective if for any reason you are in disagreement with the CEO.

One role of the Board Chair is to ensure that all Board members have a say and that when decisions are made everyone is on side and agreeable [or it is noted that they are not!].
For this reason Boards can take longer to make decisions, or in reverse can demand immediate responses from the management team, because there is inherent risk in not making a decision quickly.

Either way, if you are a HR professional exposed to your Board you need a considerable amount of personal patience.

There will be periods when you’ll need the patience to re-prioritise all that you are doing to respond to a Board need, as well as the patience to revisit and revise what has gone before.


When things don’t go to plan it’s often the management team that will bear the brunt of push back from the Board. This is particularly the case when Board members might be personally exposed or at risk because of a decision they have made [i.e. regarding executive remuneration]. If attack is directed your way you have to see beyond the personal to the underlying cause and come back and re-establish, if necessary, the strength of your former relationship.

Arguably a competence or skill, but nonetheless key – strong communication is essential for Board work.  Learn to communicate with clarity, precision and confidence.  Do not use ten words when four will do!  Boards have no time for procrastination – there is simply too much to get through.  Make sure your written communication is clear, simple and to the point.

Always listen and check that you have understood.

Other skills that are useful for working with Boards include your ability to facilitate a process or discussion – but ensure you are invited to do this, rather than stepping in to take control!
And finally, if you are lucky enough to be asked to join a Board then two other skills [along with all of the above] will stand you in good stead – be a great collaborator or team member and network.  Get known, know others, network physically and digitally and stay connected.

Join us at our event on October 2nd when Elisa will talk further about these qualities and how you might develop them.