Finding Your First Non-Executive Director Role

Once you’ve reached the pinnacle of your profession, it’s easy to wonder where to head next. For many, the answer lies in pursuing a non-executive role. Often known as ‘NEDs’, these senior leaders sit on the board of public, private and not-for-profit organisations, playing a crucial role in scrutinising performance and offering strategic input and advice to the executive team. However, finding a non-executive role is no easy task. It’s a comparatively small market, board turnover is often slow, and competition is intense. For those aspiring to become a NED, it can therefore be difficult to know where to begin. As part of our Annual GRG Executive Search Women in Leadership Event, we brought together a panel of exceptional female business leaders to share their own personal experiences and insights to guide others through the practicalities of finding a NED role. 

Featured panellists: 

  • Paula Smith, director at Openreach and NED for Platform Housing Group 
  • Anita Bhalla OBE, chair of B:Music, independent member and vice-chair of council at the University of Warwick and governor of the RSC. 
  • Helen Miles, capital and commercial services director at Severn Trent and NED of Breedon Group Plc.
  • Elizabeth Froude, chief executive of Platform Housing Group and NED for Settle Group.

Host: Sheryl Miller, diversity and inclusion advisor, business consultant, and NED for Gleeson Recruitment Group. 

The Importance Of Preparation

After many years operating in senior leadership roles within the telecoms, retail and infrastructure sectors, for Paula, finding a NED role began with creating the perfect non-executive CV. She explained, “A NED CV is very different to a regular CV. I was put in touch with a company that specialised in creating them, and we worked on it together over the course of a few weeks. It’s a lot more labour-intensive than you might imagine, and it took at least an hour to write each paragraph! All your experience needs to be condensed onto one page, which is really tough when you’re proud of everything you’ve achieved. It’s a painstaking process, but well worth the investment in the end!”

Elizabeth agreed, adding, “All those jobs you’ve worked so hard at, you’ll need to condense down to one line or so. That’s where your LinkedIn profile will become really useful. I’ve heard authors say they need to sell their book in the first 180 words. Well, now it’s time to apply the same philosophy to your LinkedIn headline!” 

The Power Of The Network

It’s well known that effective networking can make all the difference between a mediocre career and a phenomenal one, and statistics indicate up to 60% of all board-level roles are found via personal and professional relationships. It’s for this reason that after the CV is perfected, the next challenge for many aspiring NEDs is getting in touch with the right people, at the right time. As Helen explained, “NED roles can sometimes feel like a well-kept secret, and many of them aren’t even advertised. That’s why you’ve got to put the effort into making the right connections, and be proactive in putting yourself out there.”

Helen noted, “If you’re looking for a NED role in the private sector, realistically, almost all companies will be using a head-hunter, so those are the people you want to meet. If you can get an introduction through a mentor, your chair, or another NED, that’s going to be incredibly beneficial.”

And, as Sheryl pointed out, networking with existing NEDs can also be a powerful move: “Since becoming a NED myself, I’m often contacted by head-hunters or businesses about positions. If I can’t do them, they’ll often ask who I can recommend. I’ve supported numerous women into board-level positions this way.”

For those lacking the right network to begin with, this task can seem tricky – but not impossible. As Anita noted, “Volunteering can be a great way to make those all-important connections. Not to mention, it looks great on your CV. And it’s not all about being part of some secret club; some NED roles will be advertised. For example, charities or organisations with lower turnovers won’t use head-hunters, so it’s well worth seeing what you can find online, as well as making your interest known to the organisations directly.” 

Recruitment organisations and social media can also be your friend when it comes to seeking a NED role, as Elizabeth pointed out: “It’s a great idea to let your recruitment company know you’re in the market for a NED role, as they will also have loads of useful connections and can drop your name into conversation. Don’t forget to use LinkedIn too, as this can be a great way to find board roles.”

Choosing A Paid Or Unpaid NED Role

Although non-executive director roles are usually paid positions, that’s not always the case. Some board positions are unpaid, typically those for charities, educational institutions, or other non-profit organisations. Anita commented, “When you’re first starting out on your NED journey, considering a non-paid position is definitely a good idea. And you don’t always need to head straight for the board – many organisations have committees or subcommittees that can be an ideal stepping-stone.”

However, she also offered a word of caution: “If you take a non-remunerated role, don’t think it’s less important or will take up any less of your time. You need the same skills, you need to be just as competent, and it will be just as much of a challenge.” 

As Elizabeth explained, however, there’s also nothing wrong with setting your sights on a paid, private-sector position from the outset: “Although it shouldn’t be the case, with paid roles, you generally get a higher calibre when you are looking for specific technical skills. It also makes it much easier to expect time commitment, and you’ll tend to find people will be better prepared for meetings. In my organisation, we choose to pay the people who sit on our boards as we feel it allows us to be very selective about the commercial skills we’re able to bring into our sector. I’d therefore say to anyone making a choice between a paid and unpaid role that either will be fantastic experience, but you’ll sometimes face additional challenges if you choose the latter.” 

Taking The Leap 

It’s been said that landing your first NED role is nearly impossible, and landing your second is inevitable. As Helen pointed out, therefore, if your journey turns out to be a lengthy one, it’s no reason to be discouraged. She explained, “I was warned that it would take at least a year to land my first NED role, which turned out to be true. So, it’s really a case of managing your expectations, and knowing that if you put the effort in, it will eventually pay off.”

Ultimately, as Elizabeth observed, the only way to achieve a NED role is simply to throw your hat into the ring – and a lack of experience shouldn’t be a barrier. She explains, “I’ve been with my organisation for three and a half years now. Apart from one, all of our new recruits have come in with no NED experience, so don’t believe that will prevent you from getting onto a board. Even if you doubt yourself, just apply – if you don’t make the cut, going through the interview process is still a cracking way to learn, and will set you up for success next time.”

Taking The Lead For An Equal Future

At GRG Executive Search, our annual Women In Leadership events are part of our ongoing commitment to promoting equal opportunities and inclusion. You can discover more about our events and explore past topics here. Alternatively, for a confidential discussion about how I can support your executive search requirements, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me on

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