Non-executive directors sit on the board of a diverse range of public, private and not-for-profit organisations, acting as a critical friend and sounding board to provide expert guidance to the executive leadership team. By virtue of their many years of business experience, most NEDs have helped a number of organisations to thrive, expand, or overcome challenging times. And, if a NED is faced with a situation they’ve never dealt with before, they’ll probably know someone who has. However, being a non-executive director requires hard work and energy, and is also a significant time investment. If you’re considering becoming a NED, it’s likely you’re weighing up the benefits that come with the role. You may also be wondering how you’ll know when you’ve achieved all you can within a board role, and it’s time to move on to pastures new. 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 reflections.
- 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.
Learning And Growing As A Non-Executive
As executives themselves, all our panel members agreed that their non-executive roles enhanced their skills and abilities as senior leaders. Helen explained, “I feel being a NED has made me much more sympathetic when I’m acting as an executive within my own board. I have a much better appreciation for what non-execs need, and feel it’s made me a better boardroom operator overall.”
Elizabeth agreed, adding, “I feel a non-executive role really rounds you out both personally and professionally. I’ve learnt how to take a much more holistic approach to business, and examine everything from a 360° perspective. It’s also taught me the value of 100% transparency when communicating as an executive – when the exec and non-exec teams pull together as one, that’s when organisations are really able to thrive.”
Anita found that her non-executive and chair roles have allowed her to develop expertise she had previously considered outside her comfort zone. She noted, “I’m not an accountant, however, I’m now very comfortable looking at balance sheets, understanding bottom lines, and taking in complex financial information. Those are skills I likely never would have otherwise developed.”
Similarly, Helen notes that her NED roles have gifted her a separate skillset to those she had already developed as an executive. She explained, “I’ve really developed my skills over the years and discovered how to operate in the capacity of advisor and facilitator. As a NED, you need to remember – you’re not running a team, you’re there as someone who can ask the right questions. Those are skills you develop on an ongoing basis.”
Knowing When To Expand Your Portfolio Elsewhere
One of the issues that all non-executive directors must inevitably grapple with is deciding when their contribution to an organisation must come to an end, and it’s time to expand their portfolio elsewhere. For Anita, this is more a matter of instinct. She explained, “You’ll likely eventually realise that you’ve given all you can, and achieved all you’re able to. Businesses are always undergoing shifts and transformations, and you might simply feel you’re not fully equipped to help guide them through the next stage. It’s all about self-awareness – it’s better to realise yourself that your time should come to an end, rather than wait for someone else to tell you! However, some NED appointments do come with a pre-defined time period. If you’re on a health or education board, for example, you might only serve three or six years anyway.”
Elizabeth echoed Anita’s sentiment, adding, “All sectors will have phases, which will dictate the type of NED an organisation needs and when. You’ll hit a point where you realise you can’t provide what they need for the phase they’re currently in. You won’t be adding the value you once were, and you’ll know it’s time to step aside and let someone else take your place.”
Ultimately, Sheryl noted, deciding if and when to move on will all come down to whether or not staying in a non-executive role is still of mutual benefit, and if the time demands are worth the return on investment. She explained, “I have a portfolio of NED roles and some are very time consuming. This means that eventually, you do have to make some tough decisions. I would encourage anyone to really think about whether the time you’re putting in is still delivering value, both for you and for the organisation.”
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.