The journey to becoming a Non-Executive Director

Written by Divisional Managing Director Dan Yates

As a professional, it’s natural to want to develop and grow. A key part of my development in recent years has been a conscious decision to start recruiting non-executive roles. This is a natural step for any executive recruiter to take, and is one that I’ve found enjoyable and rewarding. In addition to helping me broaden my network, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know many talented and fascinating individuals. This has helped me learn more about both business and life in general, and helped me develop personally and professionally.

Whilst most of the Non-Executive Director (NED) roles I’ve recruited have gone to established, portfolio NEDs, I’ve also worked with (and placed) candidates stepping into their first NED role. Making the transition to a non-executive career isn’t always easy, so here are my thoughts on what you need to consider and do to help facilitate the move.

If offered the opportunity, start the transition early

Many organisations are happy to allow their executives to take on one external appointment. If a career as a Non-Executive appeals to you, it is worth seeing if, as part of your development, your current business is open to this idea. Gaining experience in a non-executive role will help your development by giving you exposure to another board and the experience of sitting ‘on the other side’ of the board table. Broader experience and exposure to another board will help you in your role as an executive. The sooner you can get experience as a NED, the better placed you are to build a portfolio and take on additional roles further down the line.

Be clear about what you will bring to a NED role

There is an expectation that NEDs need to contribute broadly to any board they sit on. From experience, most Chairs want multi-faceted NEDs. Even if you are well qualified to  chair a specific board committee, there is also a desire to bring on a NED who is more than just a technical subject matter expert. Given this, it is important to be clear about what differentiates you and therefore what you can bring to a board as a NED. It might be experience of M&A, ESG, exposure to international markets, or an in-depth knowledge of a specific sector.

Think about what makes a good NED

Any seasoned executive will have personal experience of working with NEDs. Think about the effective NEDs you’ve worked with, how they’ve operated and what has differentiated them from others. You need to consider differences between the roles and to be able to clearly outline what role you would play as a NED. Independence is key – bear in mind that. As a NED, it is not your job to micro-manage and run the business on a day-to-day basis. You also need to be prepared to make the required level of commitment. In addition to scheduled board meetings, you should be prepared to invest time getting to know the business. Typically, a NED role requires 20-30 days commitment a year.

Use your network

Whilst it may seem like a strange thing for a recruiter to say, using your network is, and always has been, the best way to get a job. In addition to speaking to recruiters, you should invest time in making the most out of your personal network. Let people know that you are open to becoming a NED – it can work wonders. I have first-hand experience of seeing someone who is a consummate networker quickly become a successful portfolio NED, including taking on a Chair role within 12 months of making the transition. Consider taking on a mentor who can help you on your journey and perhaps make some valuable introductions too.

Recognise that it can take time

Whilst some people make the transition quickly, it can take time. It is important to stay positive and recognise that there will be knock backs on the way. Getting the first role is always the biggest challenge. Perhaps consider taking on a role in a charity, not-for-profit or public body, or investing in professional development. The Financial Times offers a good NED course, as does Cranfield School of Management.

Whilst making the move to become a non-executive director can be challenging, it can also be very rewarding. If you would like more advice on career development in the executive and non-executive space, visit our website and explore our Insights. Here, you will find a selection of insightful articles to inform and guide you.

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