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NEDs sharing wisdom from the boardroom

“ To stay in shape as a NED it is vital to always listen to feedback,
to continuously learn and to keep your mind nimble…”


Justin van Wijngaarden is on the journey of building a full time NED portfolio career, where he has 3 NED positions but also balancing a demanding day to day job as an executive director. His two chair roles are at AQA education, the largest examination board in the UK, and at Reliance Bank, which is a social impact and ethical bank with the strap line ‘giving money meaning’. The third role is being a school governor at a local secondary academy.


What would you say to someone who is thinking about taking on a board role?

I would like to encourage them to add a NED role to what they do. It is not just a wonderful way of benefitting society, but also great for personal development. However, don’t underestimate the time commitment. If you really want to make a difference, it is not just turning up to board meetings.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it is a continuous journey of learning. You don’t turn up on day one as a perfectly formed NED. Make sure you surround yourself with quality people who will guide and support your development, and stay humble.

Also, as a NED you have to be comfortable with managing risk. You will be making decisions knowing that you will never have all information. Risk is often seen as a bad thing, but it also means opportunity. The board’s role is to evaluate and manage that risk.


What would be particularly helpful to know for an aspiring NED before entering the boardroom?

If you are an aspiring NED you need to demonstrate that you have some kind of experience and knowledge of governance.

Think of aspects in your career or personal life where you had to get the best out of teams and where you managed stakeholders and not just shareholders. Also, show that you have an understanding that being a NED is not ‘doing’ but instead mentoring, coaching and guiding the executive team.

Initially taking on a trustee role with strong peers around can be a great way to grow into a paid NED role.

It is also good to do some courses on cores skills like governance and risk etc. I did a NEDA course with certification recently and it was a great way to keep up to date with latest developments, ask questions in a safe environment but also to meet interesting people.


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?

For me the transitioning has been phased, so it is super important to know the difference and to be comfortable in the two worlds, but not sit in both at the same time. It also helps me as a NED to be sympathetic to the executive team and vice versa.

Even though as directors we all have the same responsibility around the boardroom table there is information asymmetry between NEDs and executives. You have to develop another level of skills and enquiry in order to walk away from the board meeting knowing that you are satisfied and have fulfilled your duty even with the limited information available.

To stay in shape as a NED it is vital to always listen to feedback, to continuously learn and to keep your mind nimble. The landscape of the organisation is forever changing and becoming more complex, so it is important to stay up to date with what is happening in the world and within the organisation. You then need to have an ability to translate that in what that would mean for the business. Continuously do research away from the board table, network and talk to other NEDS and executives about their perspectives, follow industry bodies, online articles and also engage with a coach or mentor.


What has been your biggest challenge and the most difficult and best thing you have experienced as a NED and how did you overcome that?

The best thing is being able to make a difference. When you can get people around the board table to mobilise and bring their best version of themselves to help the organisation achieve their goals and more – that is really formidable.

The worst thing is that you are constantly walking a tightrope. You are relying on the executive team to give you everything you need in order to discharge your duty and you never really know whether you are there. It is frightening and exciting at the same time while you’re grappling with all the forces against you and also trying to do the right thing.

The biggest challenge is to align the hearts and minds of the people around the boardroom table. The board is the decision making organ and has to be optimal at all times because - the organisation, the lives of thousands of employees, the community and other stakeholders - depend on it.


NEDs are supposed to bring a strategic mindset and wisdom to the boardroom. What does that mean to you, and how would you describe a wise NED?

To me wisdom is the governance of the board. It is the way an organisation is controlled and directed to achieve its strategic goals and how it manages stakeholders using its resources to achieve the needs of those stakeholders.

It is also to never let go of the organisation’s purpose, values and strategy. Use that to inform the discussion and bring it into play, then people tend to get back on track quite quickly. It is so easy to get lost and be distracted by unconscious biases and other dysfunctional board dynamics.

A wise Chair brings voices together to come to a decision, that involves judgement and persuasion to gain consensus. You need to be able to listen and translate what is being said, to understand human behaviour, apply your experience, know-how, honesty and stay humble.


What do you do to step out of your ‘echo chamber’ to challenge your own thinking and broaden your mindset and perspective?

I often take a contrarian view around problem solving by turning a problem upside down.

By looking at a problem from a different perspective and construct an argument around that problem, makes me think differently about it and helps me understand other people’s views better.

If the board is facing a problem, in advance of the board meeting I tend to use a ‘wide funnel process’. It helps me reflect deeply and reduces the time to arrive at something more meaningful. I will first have initial views with particular outcomes and then leave it alone for a few days to do something completely different, go for a run, meet up with friends etc. Then I will do some more research, use the upside down approach and shake it up to see how it looks again. Next I would ask people I trust and respect on a generic basis ‘what would you think of a situation like this?’. Only at this point do I feel ready to bring a coherent argument to the board table for an open discussion.

It is also hugely important to not only reflect but regularly actually stepping into diverse communities to better inform yourself outside of your ‘echo chamber’ if we are going to be able to tackle future complex challenges we are faced with.


What transferrable learnings and different perspective could you take to the boardroom from your life outside your work and professional life?

A massive transferrable learning for me is interacting with human beings, who represents all kinds of voices out there. It helps me appreciate different perspectives that I also try and encourage in my own boards. Although there is a lot of progress around diversity, I feel strongly that we mustn’t forget the non-visibly diverse.

I bring that learning into my role as a Chair. I try to get the best out of every individual around the table to stimulate a full dialogue and keep the focus on what is important. It is to get a nice set of diverse opinions and views to build up an argument to support what we want to do next. Not just jump to a quick conclusion and move on, but to have an informed debate and discussion including all talents around the table. That way you end up with a conclusion that that is in the best interest of the organisation and will meet the needs of the stakeholders. It is a process that needs care, time, energy and devotion in order to get to the best outcome that you can.


What question would you like to ask a peer NED yourself?

What does a good NED look like in 10 or 20 years’ time? We always think about the here and now, which is great but would they need to be different?



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