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NEDs sharing wisdom from the boardroom

Devyani Vaishampayan came from India to the UK 26 years ago and has a background in large FTSE corporates as senior global HR Director across various industry sectors. Recently, she has been a successful AI tech entrepreneur around the future of work. She has NED and RemCo Chair roles with three boards, two of which are listed companies, and one is an advisory firm.

Devyani is now, what she describes, in the third phase of her career, building a NED portfolio around her wide knowledge and experience and is looking for at least one more role to complete her portfolio.

What useful advice would you give to someone who is at the beginning of their boardroom career?

I knew mid-career that I wanted to become a NED. Therefore, in parallel with my executive career, I joined a charity board in Singapore and then a board of a private fund in India. My first board role in the UK was with the British Quality Foundation, a not-for-profit organization. But despite building up a lot of governance experience throughout my career, I found it quite hard to get my first paid NED role for a listed business.

It took a lot longer than I expected and happened through executive search firms who reached out to me through LinkedIn. So, I would advise early NED’s to invest time in your LinkedIn profile and make sure you advertise that you are open for a board role.

Networks are meant to be hugely important, and I believe they are useful, though not necessarily to get a role directly from. It can help you have useful conversations about specific sectors and organisations if you are invited to an interview. Being familiar and known can also help you move from a long list to a shortlist as people know who you are and what you do.

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 found the transition relatively easy as I had Group Executive experience in my career with actual accountability to at least two different boards. Being on not-for-profit boards over a ten-year period also allowed me to ease in gently. Fortunately for me, my first Plc board role was with a smaller business which allowed me the opportunity to learn about Nomad and investor interaction.

I am also a board mentor with an organization called Critical Eye, a peer-to-peer forum for senior executives. I have found it very helpful to speak and participate in their discussion groups to keep relevant with ongoing boardroom issues.

To keep in shape, I invest a lot of time in attending topical events. The big four accounting firms and several other forums are a great way for me to stay relevant. I often speak at these events, which not only forces me to read & research but also helps to build my presence and public profile for future roles. I have also invested time in upskilling myself around ESG and being an active member of organizations such as Chapter Zero who equip board directors around climate issues.

I don't have a formal mentor but have a few people in my network that I touch base with a few times a year when I need to talk something over. I actively seek to expand my network and meet interesting new people who I learn a lot from.

What has been the best and the worst thing about being a NED, the biggest challenge and the most valuable thing you've learnt so far?

Considering the accountability and responsibility you have, the worst thing about being a NED is the compensation you get. It is very rare that your role is only about attending board meetings.  When you compare NED fees to the time, effort and risk involved in the role it does not feel commensurate. 

The best thing about having a NED portfolio career is the intellectual stimulation. All my businesses are in dissimilar sectors, at different stages of growth and have different challenges. But they allow for transferrable learnings and synergies. I love the fact that I must continuously monitor and think about issues each business will face over the next 3-5 years, which is different to being in an exec role.

The most difficult thing I have experienced to date was joining a board where the company immediately went through an unexpected financially challenging period. There were key senior leadership changes as soon as I joined. As RemCo Chair, I had to learn very quickly on the job and lead some key decisions. I was the first female and ethnic person on their board but although it was challenging it also gave me the opportunity to establish myself early on. I had moments when I thought ‘oh gosh, what if I mess this up’ but you just must believe that you can do it.

In a strange way, a valuable learning for me is the realisation that business challenges today have not changed. But boards are expected to respond in an extremely fast manner, often with inadequate information. There is also greater transparency around their actions, with investors being quite unforgiving. So, the role of a board director has become far more challenging!

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

One of my fellow board members recently described me as ‘wise’ which took me a little by surprise. But what he meant was my ability to look at an issue from various perspectives, understand the longer-term impact and gently but firmly influence the rest of the board around it.

I believe the role of a NED is to look ahead as it is more difficult for the executive team, who must deal with day-to-day challenges facing the business. It is important for NEDs to understand that they are there to help the leadership team think more strategically rather than the quarterly focus that markets drive.  

I believe a big part of wisdom is being a supportive, but critical friend in a mentoring capacity, providing a safe space for the executive team to share their thoughts and concerns. I am often used as a sounding board by the CEO or the executive team as it gives them the opportunity to get different insights or the confidence to make difficult decisions.

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

One initiative that has worked well on one of my boards was to appoint an outside person to observe and critique how the board meeting went. The objectivity went a long way to help us reflect on how we could make improvements.

I also find it to be a great advantage to be on varied boards as it helps me cross-transfer perspectives and learnings. Having been a successful start-up entrepreneur but also possessing large corporate experience has helped me broaden my mindset and think ‘out of the box.’

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

I want to make sure that while building a portfolio career, I also set time aside to develop some hobbies since I can be a bit of a workaholic. I play bridge regularly and have a very active 70-year-old bridge partner who is inspiring in how she approaches life with a ‘can-do’ spirit. Bridge pushes you to continuously improve strategy and tactics, as you can specifically measure your contribution in relation to others which is what I do in the boardroom. 

I have always been interested in spirituality and believe that apart from IQ and EQ it is important to also nurture our SQ or ‘soul intelligence’, not just for ourselves but also for business. If we find time to spend on not just being in our ‘heads’ but also in our hearts and souls, it gives more clarity to thoughts and better-quality decisions are made.

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

Charting out your NED pathway is not easy. Ideally, a mix of different sectors, and ownership ie listed/PE/charity should provide a breadth of experience. But how do you make it happen?

I would love to learn from other experienced successful NEDs on how they have managed this.

I also think most people hide how difficult the journey has been, how many doors they've had to knock and what compromises they have had to make. More authentic conversations around this would be helpful. 

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