The role of a non-executive director offers satisfying and stimulating career development for senior business individuals. But how do you find and land the best roles? Here are some of the steps you need to take.
Concentrate on the day job
Most boards are looking for people who are outstanding in their own field, so it is important to be recognised as such. Win awards, be listed in the top three, broadcast and make speeches, write articles and play a key role in industry groups. This is particularly important if you are considering a move into a slightly different area.
Be realistic about what you can contribute
Have a clear idea of your skills. Companies want strong commercial experience and evidence of success in running operations, budgets and people and relevant business experience. ‘Companies want to see evidence of real-world, real-life business experience at the coalface,’ says Kit Bingham, Principal, Board Practice at Odgers Berndtson. ‘Many CVs miss out the commercial bits, or don’t let the stories emphasise the achievements enough. If you’ve turned around a division or your budget has quadrupled, then say so. Mention people who have seen you at work and who can be approached to talk about you.’
Consider broadening your skills set
Finance skills are highly sought – finance is, after all, the language of the board. If your experience and skills lie elsewhere, in marketing or HR, for instance, it may pay to brush up any finance skills you have. ‘Consider opportunities where your experience may be just as relevant, such as the boards of not for profit organisations and quangoes,’ counsels Julia Budd, a partner with executive search consultants the Zygos Partnership. ‘Experience on these will also help you learn how to handle situations around a board table.’
Unless you are remarkably lucky, you need to think strategically. The first step for many potential non-execs is to start telling business colleagues that you would be interested in such work; if it is a larger PLC you are interested in, then approach the appropriate executive search consultants. ‘Think about what kind of company would interest you most and where your particular skills and experience would be most relevant so that you can target your efforts appropriately,’ says Lesley Stephenson, editor of The Financial Times Non-Executive Directors’ Club. It can also be useful to develop a relationship with a business mentor, particularly one connected with a useful commercial network.
Narrow the search
Wading through potential roles is time consuming. Mark Henderson, Deputy Chairman of Gieves and Hawkes and a non-executive director of luxury goods oganisation Walpole, the UK Fashion & Textiles Association, and digital designers Graphic Alliance, found hiring a management coach invaluable because it helped him to decide to concentrate on becoming a chairman. ‘It’s a very interesting role,’ he reflects, ‘because you can’t impose your own opinions but you have to steer meetings and ensure the right conclusions are reached.’
Demonstrate understanding and commitment
Reading the brief carefully, understanding what the client wants is important, but understanding the role of a non-executive director goes beyond this and the requirements of corporate governance. A good non-executive, explains John Paynter, a non-executive director of Standard Chartered, Jardine Lloyd Thompson and a senior adviser to investment bank Greenhill & Co International LLP, must be prepared to devote a considerable amount of time to the job and to show genuine concern for the company. ‘It’s no good just reading the balance sheet; you have to really understand the company,’ he says. ‘You have to be prepared to engage with the company’s stakeholders, employees, customers and shareholders; you have to get out and about.’
Don’t jump into bed
When you are offered a non-executive position, resist the temptation to leap at the first role offered. Remember, you will be judged by the company you keep. And, as Henderson points out, ‘If you are only going to have a relatively small number of roles, you need to take care what you take on.’ Do not hesitate to meet others such as auditors or brokers or to ask difficult questions. If the board does not welcome difficult questions, steer clear. It is also important to look at the rest of the board carefully. Is the chairman someone you have faith in and who you can work well with? Do you get on with senior management? As a non-executive you are part of a team. As Paynter says, ‘The best boards work well because the directors respect each other and make the business work together.’
Grant Thornton, Boardroom Blog