“There is no need to agree to resolve conflicts, instead, listen to others’ perspectives and build bridges…”
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.
Joanne Roxburgh is at the early stages of her NED career building a portfolio of roles in organisations that are serious about their sustainability goals. She started with non-paid roles as a trustee for a charity and a digital college. The latter has now transitioned into a paid role due to the company doing well and growing. She has now been on their board for 2 years and is also running several committees. She finds it incredibly rewarding since the purpose of the college is to give education to people who wouldn’t otherwise have opportunities.
What useful advice would you give to someone who is just at the beginning of their boardroom career?
I would challenge why you want to be a NED? Don’t just do it for the prestige. NEDs have a certain set of duties and responsibilities, it is not just about taking up a chair in the room. You might still be able to contribute in other ways through mentoring, coaching and consulting.
The biggest challenge is to not be hands on but stay in a strategic mindset and let the executive team do their job. It is easy to get passionate and too involved in the running of the business. I remember in my first role as trustee I became more of a consultant and it set me off in the wrong mindset. Your role is to have oversight, be a friend and mentor.
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 joined networks where I met other people on the same path who wanted to make the same transition as me. I also did a lot of reading and went on courses to understand more about the role and its responsibilities. But I also decided to take on unpaid roles to really learn about the dynamics and expectations.
To stay in good shape and to be able to contribute deeper, I constantly monitor my knowledge and strength to know the gaps so I can take action and develop those. To be able to have a voice in the boardroom it’s important to broaden you knowledge and skills. For example, in my first role I had to develop skills to be able to interrogate financial statements.
To stay good at your job as a NED it is to continuously learn and develop. Apart from taking learnings from all the roles and projects I am in involved in, I read, take courses and connect with people that I share thoughts and wisdom with. Right now I am now focusing on getting a better understanding around ESG.
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?
The most difficult thing was to walk out of a board meeting knowing that it was so much going on and that you have responsibility but not able to be involved hands on. In retrospect, I should have done more due diligence before accepting my first role. I should have interviewed them as much as they interviewed me, which would have made me realise that they were not at the stage they were presenting themselves as being. I might have been involved to support them to get to that stage but not as a NED. Because of the responsibility you have as a NED, it is really important that you do the due diligence and make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for.
The biggest challenge has been scheduling time in my calendar for some of the reading of board packs. It is easy to underestimate the time it takes to go through a board-pack thoroughly so you can have a clear understanding and be prepared to speak up about things.
The most valuable thing I have learnt is that if a board is to function well everyone has to contribute. When a board gets to a stage when it works well. A well-functioning board team is when people are willing to challenge and question, not just the executive team but each other as well. For that to happen it is essential that there is a sense of trust and good communication. That is when the team becomes more than the individuals. My favourite time is when we work on strategy for the next year.
NEDs are supposed to bring wisdom to the boardroom. What does that mean and how would you describe a wise NED?
I believe that wisdom comes from drawing on thoughts and experiences from the past. Bringing wisdom into the boardroom means stepping back and giving the Executive team a removed perspective that they often lack because they get lost in the day to day running of the business.
It is essential to keep up to date with what is going on within the company, but also externally in terms of regulation, market trends, global events etc. There is a real challenge to keep on top of knowledge and awareness, you have to soak in a lot of information to be effective in the boardroom and it is easy to underestimate the time you need for that.
My advice is to get used to carving out regular time in your diary for nurturing your wise NED self so that you can confidently make the right impact when you step into the boardroom.
What do you do to step out of your ‘echo chamber’ to challenge your own thinking and broaden your mindset and perspective?
A big part for me is to continuously broaden my network and also stepping out of my own field to bring in new perspectives that could benefit the organisations I work with.
As part of the research I am doing for my PhD is to interview founders of new universities. This gives me a great insight into how the future world of higher education is shaping up.
I remember once when I spoke to someone with very different values to me who I would normally avoid talking to. It made me realise that I don’t listen enough to people with a different perspective. Since then, I have learnt that to resolve conflicts you don’t need to agree, but instead have the ability to understand others’ perspectives so that you can build bridges.
What transferrable learnings and different perspective could you take to the boardroom from your life outside your work and professional life?
Being a member of Toastmasters has been incredibly important in how I am able to think on the spot and confidently communicate in the boardroom. It taught me to give two minute speeches on a topic without preparation. It is that impromptu speaking you have in any meeting where it has been hugely helpful. You also learn to give feedback in a constructive and positive way, which is important when talking to senior leaders so that it lands well and they act on it.
I would urge anybody who is joining a larger board in particular, to make sure you are confident enough to have a voice. That is what builds executive presence.
To stay resilient, I carve out time for well-being and time out, including hiking and travelling. It helps me deal with stress better and also helps me think of the bigger picture – the wellbeing of people, organisations and the planet. They are all connected, and of course, it starts with yourself.
What question would you like to ask a peer NED yourself?
My specialist field is education. I want to know if it would be beneficial for me and my profile to broaden my NED portfolio and also have roles outside my area of expertise?
You will find all published interviews at www.nedaglobal.com. If you like to take part in this interview series yourself, please contact email@example.com.
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