At our recent Non-Executive Director (NED) event, experts from across the industry offered up their advice on how to land your first NED role and we’re sharing their insights here.
1. SEE A COACH AND IDENTIFY YOUR SKILLS
One of the hardest things about becoming a Non-Executive Director is recognising what you could actually bring to a business and knowing where your strengths lie. Barry Gamble, Senior Advisor at the Non-Executive Directors’ Association (NEDA) advocates investing in some formal coaching: “It is an opportunity to think out loud, to look in the proverbial mirror and take a proper look at yourself.” The coaching sessions give you a chance to dig a bit deeper and better understand your skills, which will in turn help you position yourself clearly and target those businesses that are going to benefit most from your support.
2. BE PASSIONATE ABOUT THE BUSINESSES YOU WANT TO WORK WITH
It may sound obvious, but having a genuine interest in what the company does is essential. In fact, Neil Sanderson, who is currently Chairman at the Inga Group explains that: “The first NED role I ever got was because I was just so passionate about the business. That’s when you can show how you can really add value.” Jacqui Green also took this approach. Having held many very senior roles in the business world, Jacqui suffered a major health issue. As a result, she decided to follow where she finds her energy, which means her work now centres on ‘people, planet and profit’. Jacqui is currently a consultant and a coach (so agrees very much with Barry’s recommendation above), but she also applied her new passion-focused lens to choosing companies to work with and has now enjoyed many successful and fulfilling NED roles as a result.
3. DO PRO BONO NED ROLES AT SCHOOLS AND CHARITIES
A great way to get your foot in the door is to take on a pro bono NED position. It is well worth looking at the Third Sector or schools as they tend to be more straightforward to get appointed to, but you will gain so much in the way of insight and experience that you can add to your CV. When not at Inga Group, Neil spends his time helping those in the Third Sector find suitable Trustees: “If you’re going to be a NED on a Third Sector board, you’ll still have to bring your skills to the table. They will probably lean on you more in fact, versus a private company. But you can learn a lot. Charities are often huge in terms of both finances and staff. And there are a lot of transferable skills from business.” Executive Chairman of Burgess Farms, William Burgess is a great advocate of NEDs and adds that: “Charities can get pretty sleepy. They tend to look after their paid staff and lose sight of the charity’s mission. It’s a good place to start as your first NED as you can make a real difference.”
4. UPSKILL TO FILL ANY SKILLS GAPS
Jacqui makes the point that: “If you have been a CEO, it is very unlikely that you will have held senior roles across all business disciplines. NEDs are the same, they don’t have to know everything. The important thing is to be curious and committed to the skills you CAN offer.” Barry Gamble of NEDA, however, clarifies that “As a NED you must have the breadth of understanding to ask the right questions. You cannot always lean on the other Directors for expertise.” But that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert. Gamble explains that short courses are a good option here: “At NEDA you can do courses that can help you fill in the gaps you feel you are missing, such as our ‘Finance for non-finance people’ course.”
5. DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE AND SIGN A CONTRACT
The key to finding the right role is to always do your due diligence. As Barry explains: “It can be very flattering to get a tap on the shoulder and be asked to be a NED. But you must do your research before you accept. Speak to the other NEDs in the business, the accountants, the lawyers, look closely at the accounts, and really get to grips with what kind of business it is.” He adds “If you’re unsure, then join them as a consultant first and see how you get on. If it all seems ok, then go for it.” As a Partner at Roythornes Solicitors, Phil Cookson recommends that if you get offered a NED position, it is vital to get a contract in place. “It is always best to get the contract drawn up and signed at the start while the relationship is still friendly. This is an opportunity for both sides to be clear on what the expectations are and to commit to them.”