Wesfarmers: why HR leaders need to work with boards

The human capital agenda is becoming more important at board level and HR leaders need to be comfortable in working effectively with directors, according to Wesfarmers’ chief human resources officer, Ben Lawrence.

“Boards have really dialed up their interest around the human capital agenda and they have a high expectation of HR leaders,” he said.

“I’ve seen a real change in my time in senior HR roles, both in terms of the conversations with boards and the frequency of the conversations.”

Lawrence said conversations with board members were simply not about remuneration or governance issues, but were more far reaching while the frequency of interactions with board members had also increased.

“When I speak to HR people that are coming up through the ranks or senior HR people who aren’t working with boards, I tell them that one of their biggest opportunities for development will be using the conversation around executive remuneration as a springboard into other important human capital issues,” said Lawrence.

“Boards have really dialed up their interest around the human capital agenda and they have a high expectation of HR leaders”

Formally, Lawrence and his HR team have a minimum of one or two sessions a year with the Wesfarmers board discussing talent management, succession, diversity as well as the depth and quality of leadership.

“I don’t believe we’re as diverse as we need to be – we haven’t cracked that one. So there are challenges in the business, but there are a number of ways we go about tackling them,” he said.

Lawrence also said aspiring HR leaders need to be strongly focused on business outcomes and building credibility in order to get ahead in their careers.

“From my own personal experience, first and foremost I’d say you’ve got to be commercial,” he said.

“So you have to understand the business, have a level of financial acumen that you’re comfortable with and understand how the business makes money.”

“Second, figure out how to establish credibility. I’ve always believed that you establish credibility by doing the small things first and the big things will come.

“I don’t believe we’re as diverse as we need to be – we haven’t cracked that one”

“So deliver on your commitments, have a strong orientation to detail, follow through on those things that you say you’re going to do, manage your ego and recognise what your role is in the organisation.”

While it is important to stay current and be a functional HR expert, Lawrence encouraged HR to look for opportunities in the business and “just give it a go frankly”.

“One of the common criticisms of HR is that they don’t understand the business from a numbers perspective. So they’re obviously in HR because they like working with people, but in terms of understanding that in a business context, I’m not sure how many HR professionals do that.”

See the next issue of Inside HR magazine for the full interview with Ben Lawrence of Wesfarmers.