For those already in senior leadership positions, attaining a non-executive role can be a rewarding and challenging way to broaden professional horizons and contribute to a company’s successes. For others, it’s an invaluable way to boost strategic thinking and business acumen. Whatever the reasons for pursuing a NED role, one fact remains the same: organisations are often spoilt for choice by the quality and diversity of board-level talent, and the field is extraordinarily competitive. When it comes to attaining a non-executive role for the first time, therefore, preparation is paramount. 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 aspiring to take this step in their career.
- 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 for 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 Journey To Becoming A NED
Speaking of what initially sparked her interest in becoming a NED, Helen explained, “I’ve worked in many different sectors – telecoms, leisure, banking – and I began to realise that one of the things I really loved was going into a new sector, and figuring out the challenges involved. I didn’t fully appreciate what a non-executive role entailed, but once I discovered you could actually be part of running a company without having the responsibility of the full-time job, I was sold!”
For Paula, the decision came down not only to wanting to share her knowledge and skills with others, but also a desire to broaden her horizons. She commented, “I’d gained so much in terms of skills and experience over the years, I thought, why not share that with others? I was also keen to add a different perspective to sectors outside of my own, which provided a great opportunity for me to learn, as well.”
Elizabeth’s inspiration came from working within the social housing sector, and discovering that the stereotypes she’d previously held about boards may have been misplaced: “In the past, I’d always been put off by corporate boards because they seemed to have so few female members, and were predominantly older males. Then I came into social housing and had the opportunity to work with boards containing a far greater degree of diversity, and I became more interested in pursuing a non-executive position – especially after my chief executive kept asking why I hadn’t done it already!”
A Helping Hand: Mentoring, Sponsorship And Support
When stepping into any board-level role, it’s a widely accepted fact that mentoring and sponsorship is vital, with both having been demonstrated to increase the likelihood of achieving a senior position by up to 24% and 11% respectively. When it came to having the confidence and connections to achieve a NED position, our panellists agreed that both were magic ingredients. Helen explains, “My first NED position was actually all down to the chairman of Severn Trent at the time. He was incredibly insightful, and noticed that executive directors who undertook a NED role brought an entirely fresh perspective back to the organisation. He didn’t just push me to do it; he supported me by introducing me to some of his contacts in the head-hunting firms. This was a really practical step because it meant I wasn’t just another candidate – I was a candidate being introduced by someone they knew and respected.”
She continued, “I also received invaluable support from head-hunters themselves, along with non-executives from the Mentoring Foundation. So, I had a whole spectrum of people providing different insights and support.”
Having attained and enjoyed a NED role herself, Elizabeth explained how she began to mentor others within her organisation to achieve non-executive positions: “After I understood the value that holding a NED role can add to an organisation, I began to include it as an objective in my team’s personal development plans. For me, it was really vital that they understood they had the backing of the organisation to develop themselves professionally in that way, and that we’d support them through every step.”
The Skills Needed To Thrive As A NED
When considering a non-executive role, many female senior leaders will ask themselves whether they truly have the skills and experience it takes to succeed. Although data from 2021 shows that for the first time ever, women hold the majority of non-executive board roles, the confidence gap between genders looms just as large as ever. For Elizabeth, it all comes down to asking what you personally can bring to the role that others can’t. She explained, “I’d advise anyone seeking a non-executive role to really question, ‘What’s my USP? What can I deliver over and above the next candidate?’ And then really having the confidence to emphasise those strengths at interview.”
She continued, “It’s also about having a curious mind. We need NEDs who aren’t afraid to ask those ‘stupid questions’ that maybe no one else has thought to ask, to test how the management understand and operate their business. Although we want people with a perspective and an opinion, we don’t expect anyone to have all the answers. Women in particular will feel they need to tick every single box to apply for a position, and they don’t. That’s why on my board, we do active skills appraisal and training, which really helps develop the confidence needed to contribute and make a difference.”
Anita, who has many years’ experience both acting in and recruiting for NED roles, offered some final words of caution: “I’m always looking for non-executives who are driven by the desire to make a real difference to an organisation, rather than someone who’s been flattered by head-hunters. That’s when I see NEDs fail, because they either don’t have the enthusiasm for the position, or the right skillset. It’s also really important that aspiring NEDs understand the time commitment, because it’s a lot of reading, and if you’ve not done it, you could be letting yourself down. I’d also say that when recruiting, I’m looking for someone who doesn’t always take themselves so seriously – when you’ve found the right board, you’ll likely find it’s a lot of fun!”
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.