You are ready to brave it into the boardroom with a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. But what are the steps you need to take to secure that first NED role?
It is very competitive and infamously difficult to secure that first role as a Non-Executive Director. The more you invest upfront in terms of understanding yourself, what value you bring and to whom, the more likely it is that you will secure a role quicker and one that is a perfect match for you. This is exactly when you will have maximum impact and make the biggest positive difference.
The best way to start is to get a good understanding of what the responsibilities and duties you take on when stepping into the boardroom.
What is the role and expected commitments of a NED?
Being a NED is a highly responsible job and comes with strict codes of conduct and statutory requirements, so it is very important to understand what those are. A good start is to get your hands on the Handbook for NEDs, which is a comprehensive guide including practical tips. It will prove to be a useful ‘companion’ throughout your career in the boardroom.
A NED is expected to bring an independent and strategic perspective to the boardroom. It is easy when you transition from an executive to a non-executive to make the mistake of falling into ‘doing’ ie executing, that should be left to the executive team. Your role is to give an independent strategic perspective and be a mentor, coach and advisor. To have a strategic mindset is having an ability to switch from detail to big picture, ask challenging questions and to bring an independent perspective.
The commitment you need to give to a NED role varies, but is probably more than you think and depends on the size of the business. Apart from attending the regular board meetings, you are expected to read up before, prepare, keep abreast with developments that would affect the business. It is also essential to keep up to date with your own personal development in your role as you progress. It is a substantial commitment to be a NED and not just turning up to board meetings.
How? Make sure to get a solid understanding of corporate governance and your duties and responsibilities as a NED. Do your research, read up about it (NEDA Handbook) and enrol on a reputable course such as the NED Training & Certificate…and keep developing your strategic mindset.
What do organisations look for from a NED?
After getting to grips with the more formal requirements it is essential to understand what the organisation is looking for from a NED.
While boards typically expect candidates to bring a broad sweep of commercial experience and a contact network, they will also seek “spikes”. This may include regulation, technology, risk, ESG, industry or market specific skills just to name a few. It is becoming more essential to not only have financial skills but also good all-rounded awareness of risk and an understanding of technology and how that impacts business.
In essence, to be an Exceptional NED, you need to have the right skills, sound knowledge and the right mindset. These all help to not only create a better understanding and awareness of yourself but also the world around you. This in turn leads to better quality decisions that will have not only a positive impact on the business but on all stakeholders.
How? Identify any gaps in your skills, experience, knowledge and mindset. Find ways to develop missing areas through courses, webinars, research and reading, coaching etc. Exceptional NEDs never stop investing in their own development and learning.
Why would the organisation want YOU on their board?
Next step is to understand why a company would want to appoint you to their board? What is the unique combination of skills, experience, values and beliefs etc that you bring to an organisation that will help them solve their problems and thrive? This match of your ‘solution’ to their specific ‘problem’ will be the key to how quickly you will secure a role.
To be able to find the ideal organisation where you would add most value, it is important to understand your motivation for wanting to become a NED. Is it money, status, feeling valued, leave a legacy or make a difference and positive impact for the organisation and/or society as a whole?
The best fit is when you understand and align your values and purpose with that of the company you want to help. The combination of a passion for what the organisation does and then adding specific skills, experience and network you have that is helpful to them, is a winning combination. It shows authenticity in your intentions and wanting to make a difference, your combination of skills and experiences are the enablers you bring to them to make it happen. The best thing you can do is to invest time in understanding your own purpose and what makes you unique.
How? Spend time trying to connect with your sense of purpose - ask yourself what are your most important values? You can often find clues in what makes you upset, and then work out how you can make a change? Bear in mind that finding a purpose is not a destination, or something you buy off a shelf, but a process of discovering more about yourself. The best way to do that is set time aside regularly to reflect - slow down, stop doing and just be. Working with a coach could be a good investment to help you find your voice and what makes you unique.
Where are the opportunities?
The best way to find the ideal opportunity is to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, where ‘you’ are the product. Get your pitch right, be very clear about why your profile is unique and then prepare your marketing collateral - CV, BIO and LinkedIn profile.
Understand exactly what type of organisation that is your ideal target - industry, size, phase in business cycle, culture etc - makes it easier to target your efforts in finding the opportunities right for you.
Despite thinking that board roles are appointed on a meritocracy basis, most appointments actually come through personal connections. A recent survey by Board Appointments showed that only 20% of NEDs went through headhunters and adverts, with 15% approaching companies directly and 65% came through their network.
Register with headhunters and online NED job platforms, scan through adverts, but invest most of your time in building quality networks that will work for you.
How? Some ideas to consider are pro bono work as an advisory board member for a charity or not for profit, or a mentor or advisor to early stage start-ups is a good way to gain some governance experience and also open doors for a future NED role once they hit series A stage. This may also give you a chance to develop mentoring skills and building a network.
How do I build a strong network and make it work for me?
If you build your network well, it will find you the opportunities, but you need to be very clear and focused with your sales pitch. The temptation is to be more generic than specific to not ‘miss’ any opportunities. However, that means you will just be one of many that could do the job. Get to know your sweat spot, and build and tell your network so they can sell you better.
Be methodical when you build your network. Start by reaching out to your existing contacts - friends, family, colleagues and other work connections and tell them about your new intentions.
Expand and build a wider and stronger network - engage with investors, founders, NEDs, thought leaders, attend events (when it is possible or - second best - do some virtual ones) all focused on industry or area you have identified as your target.
When building your networking, be unconditionally generous and inquisitive, offer to help or collaborate without expecting anything back. This will eventually pay off because you will be known for being authentic and driven by your purpose rather than your ego. It will cement your place as being genuine and someone who wants to make a difference.
How? Start building a thought leadership on the subjects that you know well and are passionate about. This means writing insightful articles, comment on discussions and re-share others’ articles, talks etc. Optimise your online profile and align it with your thought leadership and brand.
Put all your cards in order, make sure you have the right skills, knowledge and mindset to be an exceptional NED. Identify skills gaps, keep up to date with industry and regulatory news, consider investing in coaching to help you find the right fit and to ensure you make maximum impact once in the boardroom. Build a good quality network of contacts and keep maintaining it. Start building your thought leadership, become known for the very thing that makes you unique.
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