“ Your role as a NED is not just about contributing your own perspective
but also to represent those voices that are not in the room …”
This article is one in a series of interviews with NEDs from widely diverse backgrounds.
The intention is to share experience and wisdom as they reflect on their own life
in the boardroom and how they got there.
Sarah Parr started her boardroom career ten years ago when she was relatively young in her late 30s. She has had three board roles to date, all in organisations that have a strong social purpose that align with her own. With annual turnovers ranging from £1M to an excess of £70M, she has been a NED, chaired audit and assurance committees and now also a board chair. Her NED career started early where she was fortunate to have a supportive manager who suggested that she take on a board role outside of the organisation she worked for.
What useful advice would you give to someone who is just at the beginning of their boardroom career?
I wish someone had told me that just because I wasn’t an expert at a particular area, I didn’t have a valuable perspective. It is often those innocent questions that are the ones that really get to the core of the issues. It took me a while to realise and give myself permission to be part of some of those conversations.
On reflection, I would also say that it’s important we don’t forget that your role as a NED is not just about contributing your own perspective, but also to represent those voices that are not in the room. What do you need to say in that conversation that is not being said?
Last but not least, if you are someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in governance, I would advise you to do a course. Governance is the foundation and bedrock of the organisations and boards – what are the terms of reference, what are the delegations etc. However, remember that the governance framework is only part of the story, it is also about behaviour and culture. You need to be informed, compliant with the rules and understand governance, but not be a slave to it to the detriment of the needs of the business.
How did you make the transition into becoming a NED? How do you keep up to date and on top of being in ‘good shape’ in the Boardroom?
I didn’t consciously prepare myself for the transition, but found it helpful to have informal conversations with executives that I knew in the sector, asking for their advice. It led me to reflect on what relevant experience I had to offer and whether it was the right place jfor me to go.
In terms of governance, I was fortunate that I was already working within that space, which benefitted me enormously when I took on my first NED role. Although, I do make sure that I keep up to date, so as well as reading, I also am a member of the ICAEW governance faculty. This helps me stay in tune, not only with general trends and emerging risks, but also more specifics such as what other sectors are looking at etc.
To be in good shape for the role, I also believe that self-development and being open to feedback is key. In my first role I had a fantastic chair, who was a great sounding board and also gave me constructive feedback to help me improve and develop as a NED.
What has been your biggest challenge and the most difficult thing you have experienced as a NED and how did you overcome that? What is the most valuable thing you've learnt so far?
My background is primarily as a consultant, so the most difficult thing for me in being a NED has been to take off my advisory hat, not offer solutions, but instead help the executive team to find the answers themselves. This is something I have been reflecting on a lot recently in terms of my own development. Not always giving advice but also making sure I don’t ‘dial down’ that aspect too much so that I am not bringing everything I can to the table.
The most challenging thing is to be realistic with time as you manage your NED portfolio. It is about creating capacity but also setting boundaries. I need to bring value to justify my place at the table and my remuneration, but that sometimes means sacrificing your weekends to go through a 200 page board pack. My advice is to make sure you understand what the expected commitment is before you accept a NED role and then double it!
The most valuable learning in terms of my own development is the way in which being an NED has broadened my strategic thinking and also expanded my own perspective by looking at issues through different lenses. It has also taught me to not just take things as it says on paper, but to step back and think how it all fits with what I am seeing and feeling when I am in the organisation. That triangulation is the most valuable thing that I have learnt. Look at the evidence and logic and then apply something else to that to make sure it fits together.
It is not just about absorbing information, but about reflecting. If you have an uneasy feel about something, don’t push it to one side, but ask the question.
NEDs are supposed to bring wisdom to the boardroom. What does that mean and how would you describe a wise NED?
Wise NEDs bring their own thoughts but also listen and value the diversity of thought that others bring, both in the boardroom and beyond. I believe that wisdom is as much about the questions you ask as it is about the knowledge and experience that you bring.
Wise NEDs are curious, ask challenging questions and see value in constructive feedback. They know when their voice is adding value to the conversation, but they are also aware when it is better to be quiet because something has already been said, it doesn’t serve a useful purpose or it might be better taken offline.
What do you do to step out of your ‘echo chamber’ to challenge your own thinking and broaden your mindset and perspective?
When I look back on my own NED career, the moments when my thinking has really shifted is often when I have heard a perspective from someone who wouldn’t ordinarily be sitting in the boardroom. I always encourage the executive team and board, to have conversations and listen directly to stakeholders to achieve all-rounded perspectives and therefore come to better informed decisions.
In one organisation we had a very difficult decision to make about a part of the business that was struggling financially. The board had an opportunity to listen to some of the staff presenting and hearing the passion for what they did. On reflection, it was really enlightening for me because it meant that my ‘accountant and finance mind’ quietened down a bit and I became more balanced in my thinking around the topic. We might as a board have come to the same decision about the future of that business, but this was better informed than it would otherwise have been.
What transferrable learnings and different perspective could you take to the boardroom from your life outside your work and professional life?
I love the outdoors and am lucky to live in the North West of England where there is beautiful nature and walks all around. Nature and the peacefulness it can bring, gives me a time to reflect, to sit with my thoughts and let them percolate. It makes me humble, where I nurture a healthy perspective and it helps remind me of the connectivity of things.
I am a strong believer in connections, taking the time to build relationships and expanding my network. Collective decision making is all about having an understanding of different perspectives and an ability to have challenging conversations. Knowing people at a personal level is important, especially when you take on a chair role. I want to get the best out of each board member, so understanding human behaviour is essential to be able to navigate around difficult situations and making everyone feel heard.
What question would you like to ask a peer NED yourself?
I am a big believer and advocate that more diverse boardrooms and leadership teams bring huge value - not only for the organisation, but also to society as a whole. As Board Members, we all have a role to play in making this happen and need to take ownership for this change, so my question to you as a NED ‘What are you doing personally to accelerate this change, and create more inclusive organisations?’
You will find all published interviews at www.nedaglobal.com. If you like to take part in this interview series yourself, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Non-Executive Directors’ Association (NEDA), is a professional Association that develops and promote competent NEDs throughout their boardroom career with the right skills, knowledge and mindset. To find out more how we support our members to stay up to date through certified training, insight updates, coaching, networking and more, please go to www.nedaglobal.com.