The role of the non-executive director has changed immeasurably over the past 25 years or so. Once, their appointment may simply have been part of a ‘good governance’ box ticking exercise, but today, their independent oversight and commercial guidance plays a key role in navigating organisations through an ever-changing business landscape. With many also juggling a high-pressure day job, competing priorities, and complex internal relationships, the role of today’s NEDs is also more challenging than ever before. For those seeking to attain their first non-executive role, therefore, figuring out how to navigate the boardroom during their breakthrough appointment can be an intimidating undertaking. 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 examine this subject in more depth.
- 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.
Conflicting Priorities And Juggling Demands
For many NEDs, the first aspect of the role to get to grips with is the difference between an executive and non-executive role, along with the challenges of potentially managing both at once. Paula explained, “As a non-executive, you’ll often have large gaps in your interactions with the rest of the board. People won’t necessarily be as responsive as you’d like, so you’ll also need to learn to temper your expectations. Unless you’re retired, you’ll also still be faced with the demands of your day job. So, it’s a case of frequent conflicting priorities and learning how to manage them.”
Elizabeth agrees that adjusting to a non-executive role can be a learning curve. She added, “When you’re in an executive role, you’re able to ‘join the dots’, but in a non-executive role, that’s often not the case. Instead, you’ve a moment in time during which you have an insight into what’s going on, and then you’ll be coming back maybe two or three months later needing to remember and catchup. Navigating that aspect can be a real challenge at first.”
For Helen, however, the difference between her NED role and day job was a breath of fresh air. She explained, “One of the things I love about being a non-executive is that I’m focusing on a different organisation and their challenges and strategy, and leaving all my own behind. I find this really refreshes my mindset, and readjusts my perspective.”
No matter how tempting it may be, NEDs must abstain from becoming actively involved in the day-to-day running of a business, and instead focus on providing objective oversight and strategic guidance. This can sometimes be a challenge, as Paula explained, “It’s definitely hard, especially when things aren’t being done the way you think they should be. That’s when you’ve got to remind yourself what you were brought onto that board for. It requires some discipline, and that’s a skill that comes with time.”
Elizabeth agreed, and added, “As a NED, you need to be able to leave your own agenda at the door and focus on the goals of the organisation. The purpose of the board is governance, it’s not about running the business.”
In her role as chair, Anita has sometimes witnessed NEDs overstep the mark. She recalled, “I’ve had to remind NEDs a few times when they’ve tried to get too involved that they’re not running the show, and that they need to go to the chief executive with issues rather than just wading in. Though I do understand that having that restraint can be hard if you’re operating within your area of expertise.”
Listening And Learning
All of our experts agreed that at the outset of a first NED appointment, much can be learned from holding back and simply observing how other board members operate, as well as learning how to ask the right questions. As Helen explained, “One of the best things you can do is to do nothing! Simply sit back and learn for the first few board meetings. Watch how others who are more experienced than you operate, and work out the dynamic of the boardroom. Don’t think you need to rush in there making your presence felt straightaway.”
Elizabeth added, “It’s true that sitting, listening and learning is really important, because eventually you’ll find someone whose approach you’ll want to emulate. You’ll also find it’s important to ask questions slightly differently. You’ll need to be able to prize out important information and work out what answers you need there and then, and what can wait.”
Paula elaborated, “I think an important skill is also learning to be less direct with your questioning, and taking a softer approach. Often, asking people to inform and educate you is a safer way to gain information, and also makes them feel more comfortable.”
For some, the idea of joining a well-established board can be daunting, and can feel like wading into unfamiliar territory with unknown dynamics. However, Paula assures potential NEDs that there’s no need to fear: “It’s actually quite easy to begin building those informal relationships. You usually have a board meeting and dinner, so you’re socialising with the rest of the board as frequently as you’re sitting in a meeting room. It’s a great way to get to know one another, and start breaking down some of those professional barriers.”
Sheryl also notes the importance of forging alliances with an organisation’s executive team. She commented, “As a NED, I’m always keen to meet the exec team, to understand what they do and get an idea of how they feel the business is run. It’s a time to just listen and understand the business from different perspectives before I head in with my size nines!”
Helen also agreed that this is an important step, and added, “This approach can be really beneficial, because you don’t always see all of the execs all of the time – you often only see the CEO and CFO. So, putting the time into getting to know the other directors as well can be invaluable in terms of building those important relationships.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.