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Are people your greatest asset? Then your executive and board must include people expertise, and that probably means more women

I have a question:  if people really are the greatest asset in any business (as many would say), why is it that HR professionals are paid less than those who manage the financial, property and operational assets of almost any business? Why do the so-called “soft skills” and “support roles” harbor less pay, promotional prospects and prestige than the functional and “line” roles, and does it have anything to do with the former being mostly held by women?

I got to thinking about this on Tuesday night when, after being stranded at Sydney airport in the midst of a storm for almost 5 hours, my flight was cancelled.  Along with hundreds of others I found myself queuing til 11.30pm to make alternate travel arrangements.  (Many of you commented on my blog about what Qantas is learning about women, our loyalty and the way we buy, and I can’t help wonder if that jinxed me this week!)

You might think this would be an incredibly frustrating experience, but fortunately the project manager had a business travel disaster plan deployed in no time at all, and I’m sure that saved my sanity.  (BTW if you find yourself in the same situation, I highly recommend you follow suit, it goes a bit like this:

  • Make your first port of call the airport spa and book in for a quick back and neck massage  
  • Kick back with a beverage of choice in the most comfortable waiting area you can find, repeating your new mantra “this too will pass and is beyond my control!”  
  • Work your way through the bag of magazines and catch-up reading you’ve packed for the flight
  • Once you’ve reached the point of no return (or no flight, in this case) send text messages to cancel the meetings you’ll miss – provided you indeed have the mobile phone contacts for everyone you’re meeting with!)

The caveat of course is that, if you’re travelling with kids, it all goes out the window and then nothing will save your sanity – or that of the people around you – and so I cannot tell you how grateful I was to be travelling alone this week!

Anyway, back to the people issue:  there must have been thousands of passengers rescheduled that night and I must say – from what I observed – the airline staff did an amazing job of managing a very difficult situation.  Which got me thinking about how important people are to any business. 

Of course we hear that all the time, “our people are our greatest asset”, but how often does a business really live and breathe that belief?  And invest in making its people the very best they are capable of being? How often is the strategy of the business driven from a cornerstone of human capital, and how well do we motivate our people to execute the strategy? 

And then there’s the big one: why do we pay people leaders less than those managing other aspects of the business?

I’m sure Alan Joyce would concur that things can go horribly wrong when we miss the mark with our people, and of course he’s not the only one.  Yet in my experience as a management consultant, I saw more strategies built on product and distribution and geographical objectives than on the one true thing that cannot be replicated: the people and culture of the organisation.

Yet for some reason we just don’t value people leaders in the same way as other business leaders, and perhaps that’s part of the gender balance puzzle.

Ask anyone in the recruitment game what sort of career path will get you to the C-suite and they’ll tell you to take a “line” role, with profit and loss responsibility, and to brush up on your financial acumen.  Numbers, after all, are the international language of business.  But there is no business without people.

Ask any director for advice on building a board career, and the same will ring true: the top skills they’re usually looking for involve audit and finance, compliance and law… just about anything, for that matter, except leading and managing people.

Of course when the majority of HR and people roles are held by women, this creates a conundrum: how do you retain and develop these women, when there’s limited progression opportunities in their chosen field.  Frequently these women are moved away from their passion and into “line” roles, and all too often they then leave – to start their own business or to take another HR role elsewhere.

Women who’ve worked their way through the HR ranks tell me they’re not considered for executive roles, on the basis that they don’t have enough business experience.  And yet we’ve all seen the bloke promoted into his first executive role by taking a shift from the business to an HR portfolio.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this play out: apparently the women who’s only had HR experience isn’t suitably equipped for an executive role; whereas the “numbers guy” with no qualifications or experience in people related disciplines can be “given a shot” with the most prized asset of the business.

Likewise it’s rare that a board will recruit for people skills.  So when they’re setting the strategy, who’s providing the people expertise?  The consultants?  Or accountants?  Or lawyers?

It’s just a thought, but allowing women – who hold the majority of HR and people roles across the board – to continue in their chosen field and bring their expert people skills to the executive team and board room table could be a win-win.  It would deliver more balanced leadership; it would improve the gender balance; and it would protect the greatest assets in our businesses today.

Like I say, it’s just a thought…  but perhaps you have an opinion to share?


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