Straight from the horse’s mouth – what it takes to be an effective NED

Keith Butler | 4 April 2019

As part of a piece of work for one of our key clients, NSCG has been putting together a training programme to help experienced managers step up into non-executive director roles. As part of this, to help identify the skills and experience needed, we interviewed 12 people who had secured NED positions, many of them having undertaken several such roles. The key points gleaned from these interviews are as below:

1) How Do You Get a NED Role?

By a significant margin, the main way that NED roles were secured was via the individual’s network. Other ways of securing a NED role included being asked directly by a client, responding to an advert and being approached by a recruiter. However, networking accounted for over 80% of NED roles obtained!

What is also interesting here is that well over a third of the roles came not from the individual’s direct network but from connections of connections. As such, it is important to let as many people as possible know that you are potentially interested in NED roles so that they can recommend / refer you to their contacts as and when appropriate.

2) What makes a successful NED?

We asked the NEDs not only about what experiences and competencies they had that helped them be successful but also what they would look for when taking on a NED. The main factors quoted were:

  • Strong communication and stakeholder management skills.
  • The ability to robustly challenge the Board, including matters that you are not necessarily a subject expert on.
  • Do your homework! Research the organisation, the sector it operates in, what competitors are doing, the external marketplace and relevant Government legislation.
  • Know what you can offer the Board that will be of value and will supplement the skills and experience possessed by current Board members.
  • Hard work, commitment and good organisational skills. As one of the NEDs said: “You cannot play at it!”
  • An understanding of your own area of specialisation, but being able to also look wider, strategically and holistically.
  • The ability to take a step back from operational matters and focus on the longer term.

3) Some words of advice

Finally, we asked the NEDs for any other advice they could offer prospective NEDs, either to help them secure a NED role or whilst in post. Some of the most useful is as below:

  • It can be a good idea to apply for roles in smaller organisations first e.g. Trustee of a Charity, community venture or a school. Alternatively, look to join as a non-exec on a committee rather than on a full board.
    Network, network, network!!
  • Think about what skills and experience you have that others might not and look for organisations where this experience might be useful. For example, if you have managed a merger, look for organisations going through a similar process.
  • In a similar vein, do some research on the current Board members of an organisation you would like to be a NED for and try to determine where you could add something a bit different. Boards are most effective with a cross-section of skills and experience and the better Boards will look to increase their spectrum of experience.
  • Pro-actively market yourself, for example via LinkedIn and other social/business media routes.
  • Shadow a Board Member or existing NED to get a better idea as to what they do and how they do it.
  • Always maintain independence of thought.
  • Get the balance right between challenge and collaboration.
  • Accept and be comfortable in the fact that you will not understand everything in detail – that is not your role!

Is it for you?
Overall, the vast majority of the NEDs had really enjoyed the experience and felt that it had been beneficial to all parties. The organisations they had worked for as a NED benefitted from their experience and the different perspective they could bring to the table; the NEDs themselves benefitted from seeing how other organisations work and how they address the challenges they face; and – if they had a permanent job as well – they were able to bring back their NED learning experiences to help develop strategy and “see things differently”. However, as well as these benefits, the NEDs we spoke to also wanted to point out that being a NED is hard work and is not for everybody, so it is important to go into it well prepared and with your eyes open.

Keith Butler is a consultant in our executive search team. If you are interested in hearing more about what is involved in being a NED or you are considering applying to NED roles, then please get in touch.

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