Planning on becoming a Non Executive Director?

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Type into GooglePlanning on becoming a Non Executive Director’ and you’ll find a host of articles and training courses promising a peek behind the curtain.

Many of the senior execs in Barron Williams network already hold a NED role, some that don’t want to find their first.

However, gaining that first NED role isn’t always straightforward.

As well as the right skill set, experience and emotional intelligence, you need to go out and generate NED opportunities. 

Many in our ExecBank have achieved multiple executive positions in their careers. 

They’ve a strong CV in their chosen field/sector, and a number of years at the senior level.

However, I still see many seasoned execs struggling to find NED roles. Even harder is that first rung on the ladder.

It’s a comparatively small market. Board turnover is low. NEDs are often found through networks and contacts, by other NEDs. It’s a bit of a club.

It takes a different mindset to become a Non Executive Director

Many have what it takes to be a successful Non Exec but you can’t bring an Exec mindset to the table.

That can often be more hinderance than help. Keep your hands in your pockets!

In our article Why hire Barron Williams for NED recruitment? we touched on what makes a good NED but I really want to expand on that… 

Step away from the training courses, the 10 things you need to do to find a Non Executive Director role, and dig into the fundamentals of a good NED.

I’ve also spoken to a handful of successful Non Execs in my own network to ascertain what they feel it takes to be a successful Non Exec. 

What is the key trait or piece of advice they would pass on to a serious, aspiring Non Executive Director?

According to the in their article Have you got what it takes to be a non-executive director?, they state that; “the ideal non-executive director is, someone who is quiet, knowledgeable and competent”.

They go on to quote leading exec search firm, Spencer Stuart, highlighting that; “modesty is a virtue, advising that suitable candidates need a ‘low ego’ and should not be dogmatic”.

And that; “to stand a realistic chance of getting a first role as a non-exec it is vital to use your business network while you are still employed. But there is a caveat: do not look too close to home”.

All points with which we fully agree…

Most NED roles are often unlikely to be advertised, and whilst we do advertise a number of NED positions, the majority never hit the market. 

As I’ve said; networks, contacts and recommendations are key.

The ability to leverage your connections and network for mutual commercial gain is the key to securing Non Executive Director roles, be it your first or an addition to a portfolio.

The not looking close to home is an interesting point too. 

Many of the successful NEDs we know have often taken skills honed in one sector and transferred them to another. Private sector execs taking a position with an NHS Trust or in further education are good examples.

What makes a good Non Executive Director?

On paper, many CV’s will say; ‘I can do that’ – But can you?

The articles and training courses in a Google search will list traits like leadership, strategic thinking, critical thinking, integrity, etc…

But aren’t they all a given at this level? 

Do they guarantee a NED role? Absolutely not!

What is the secret ingredient? The secret formula? 

What do Boards look for in a NED?

Those aforementioned traits are much sought after at the Exec level, but for me, you can check most of them at the boardroom door at Non Exec.

Companies are not looking for someone to lead. That is in place already.

They’re not even necessarily looking for someone to drive growth or strategic change. Again, that is what the Exec team are for.

A Non Exec is there to ensure that the right people are in place to do the above.

  • To be a ‘critical friend’.
  • To challenge.
  • To facilitate.
  • To support.
  • To offer the benefit of their wisdom and experience.
  • To create an environment where the Board can function efficiently and effectively.
  • To act with integrity and to high ethical standards.

What advice would those on the Barron Williams network give to those looking for a NED role?

However, as I stated in the intro, I wanted this article to be a peek behind the curtain. 

So, I approached 5 highly respected individuals on my own network and asked them what is the best advice they could give to those wanting to become a Non Executive Director?

I stressed that I wanted them to try and avoid the obvious, however, this was a good mix of people in terms of experience, sector, etc, so I was pleased to get a varied response:

Non Executive Director #1

“A board should be diverse in every way; gender, ethnicity, personality, background, skills, etc. You need to make sure you’re offering them something ‘different’ to what they already have. A USP if you will. The reason NEDs are often procured via networking is that those of us who are well connected can bring that to another board/organisation. You need to identify where you can add value, articulate that, and market your credentials to the right people. Start by thinking about what are the types of companies, sectors and business situations where I could potentially add some real value? More often than not I find that my skills are most in demand out of the sector I’m known for.”

Non Executive Director #2

“In my experience most people think they’ll just stroll into a Non Exec role on CV and current position alone. I always say forget it. Realistically you need to be thinking about 2 years of serious networking. You need to be engaging with a reputable executive search firm such as Barron Williams. You need to be active in your regional business community and/or industry bodies. Start by looking to help a charity or take a position as school governor. Take on a free position to demonstrate what you can bring to the table. Use it to fill that gap on your CV. Maybe consider some additional training/development, I’ve taken a few that have certainly helped. The best advice I can give after a number of years in this field is that success comes to those who are strategic, methodical and persistent.”

Non Executive Director #3

“I’ve been a NED for a number of years [more than I’d care to share] and I get asked regularly how I got started. I think there was an element of right place at the right time but I’ve had to work very hard to progress. Many assume that once you’re in, you’re in. That is most definitely not the case though. At the very least a good NED should be able to examine efficiency and provide suggestions for how to better fulfil the aims of the organisation. You are there to nurture and mentor the Board. Share the benefit of your experience and wisdom behind the scenes as well as bringing fresh ideas to Board meetings. If I don’t feel I can add real, tangible value, then I will step down. You’re not doing them or yourself any favours.”

Non Executive Director #4

“The best piece of advice I can give is to go into it with your eyes open. Be cautious. Many are attracted by the additional income. I know I was. This is something I can do alongside my main exec role. However, I’ve seen people get burned too. As Non Exec Directors you have the same legal duties and obligations as an Executive Director. If something goes wrong, then you’re on the hook for it. You’re only involved with that company a day or two a month but you have to ensure you conduct due diligence both before you join and while on the board. I’ve worked hard to get where I am and I don’t want to jeopardise my career because that company is acting irresponsibly.”

Non Executive Director #5

“That’s a tough one. I suppose, to answer the question, then for me it is all down to building your network. Selling yourself. Find your unique skillset. Self-promotion. Being careful to not come across as arrogant of course. Boards can often be a strange mix of personalities so cultural fit is essential. There needs to be trust and respect. That goes both ways. You are there to support them but also constructively question their decision making. You can’t just sit a nod along, say yes to everything and agree with the Chairman. A good NED will challenge decisions and strategy.”

Valuable, first-hand advice and insight from those with experience. 

As you’d expect it’s not all plain sailing too. 

Being a Non Executive Director is not just board meetings and lunch…

You’re there to support the exec team in challenging times; that’s when they need you most!

Still interested in becoming a Non Executive Director?

  • Get some experience; unpaid – school governor, charity, public sector?
  • Build your network; especially with other NEDs in relevant commercial sectors.
  • Get info on other sectors, companies and investors.
  • Create opportunity. 
  • Find out where you can best add value.
  • Offer to introduce your contacts to others. Give as much as take.
  • Get a good reputation and build it. It’s your life’s work.
  • Offer to help companies or Boards with FREE advice. Creating value creates opportunity.
  • Get involved with trade bodies? They tend to be excellent networks in themselves and you can get to know an industry very quickly.

Do the above, word will soon get around, and the phone will ring…

And the better the input, the better the opportunities!

However, it takes time… 6 months, 12 months, maybe more to get that network working effectively.

But until you start, you’re always 6, 12 months away…

…You best get started!

If you’re looking for a Non Executive Director for your organisation, please use our Client Upload Form or Call Us now.

If you’re looking for a NED role, then please feel free to Upload Your CV or Call Us for an exploratory conversation. 

And if you don’t have a network, the first thing we’ll tell you to do is build one!

Barron Williams

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