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Wisdom shared by 'sages' in the boardroom

Establishing good relationships is key to influence positive outcomes…”

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.


Vernon Sankey is highly experienced in the boardroom and has been a NED since 1997 when he joined the board of Pearson plc while also being the CEO of Reckitt and Colman plc. Since then he has been a Chair, NED and board advisor to several major national and international corporations as well as chairing Audit and Remuneration Committees. He was also a founder member of the UK’s FSA (Food Standards Agency)


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

Firstly, get on the audit committee early on. It is the central repository of all activities in the business and will provide you more rapidly with a better grasp on what is happening in the business. You will then understand better what is being discussed at the board meeting. It is an essential initial learning experience.

Secondly, build relationships with people on the board and inside the business, in particular the Chair, the CEO and the Finance Director. Establishing good relationships is absolutely critical to ensure you have access to, and are able to understand, key information. If executives don’t want you to know something, it is very easy for them to conceal it. So establishing quickly a climate of trust and encouraging the sharing of information is vital. One of the biggest risks for a NED is to not know what is going on or to have just a partial and erroneous perspective and being blindsided on major issues. The best way to handle this is to have good relationships and not to abuse the information provided. Discretion and diplomacy are absolutely critical at all times, as well as having an approach which is at the same time enthusiastically curious and quietly humble.

Thirdly, be highly self-aware and make sure you are helping and not hindering the business. It is a very difficult role to be a NED, where you have major fiduciary accountabilities and overall responsibility for the ultimate wellbeing of the company but with no executive authority for actually doing anything. If you have to intervene, do it with great care. A NED only has authority through influence, which brings us back to the importance of establishing good mutually respectful relationships.


How did you make the transition from being an Executive Director to a Non-Executive Director? How do you keep up to date and on top of being in ‘good shape’ as a NED?

I found it an easier transition than I had imagined. Possibly this is because, having been a CEO of a very dynamic and active company, I understand and respect what the executive teams are going through, having been there myself! My style as a CEO and board member has always been to support and guide, while being open and accessible. I am always willing to ask (even stupid!) questions and expect people to take responsibility for their actions.

Keeping up to date requires and open and curious mindset, absorbing as much information as possible from a wide range of sources and learning from others. It requires being a good listener, where real quality listening means hearing both what is and, more importantly, what is not being said.


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 biggest challenge is trying to manoeuvre situations in the boardroom with diplomacy in such a way that the right thing gets done and egos are managed. This applies to the need to ensure there is an executable and financed strategy and the right people to carry it out. Such a strategy also needs to take account of the requirements of the many stakeholders the company may have.

The hardest thing is to know precisely what is going on. It is only too easy to come to simplistic conclusions based on inadequate information. It is incumbent on all NEDs to thoroughly understand the key issues of the business so as to provide the best guidance and advice, based on their experience.

The most valuable thing I have learnt is that establishing good relationships is the key to navigate challenges and difficulties. Active listening will always give better access to the right information, while encouraging people to share what they believe is really going on makes work more effective as well as more enjoyable.  


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

Being wise means listening, learning by enquiry, being prepared to ask the ‘silly’ or unpopular question and remaining silent when you have nothing to add, either because it’s already been said or you just don’t know! It also means providing ideas, advice, suggestions and guidance based on proper study as well as the experience gleaned from many years in various industries.

It often means doing little in the way of directing, but rather allowing and encouraging people to provide insights and give of their best. It is not the role of the NED to provide the answers but to be sufficiently self-aware and self-confident to keep asking as many questions as necessary in a supportive way until the executives come up with their own aligned and comprehensive solution that makes sense.

In this respect I recommend reading Lao Tzu’s ‘Tao Te Ching’, the ultimate book on leadership and on understand the self. One of Lao Tzu’s greatest pieces of advice is contained in the phrase: ‘The master does nothing but leaves nothing undone’. It is worth taking time to reflect on this.


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

My door is always open and I surround myself with people from all walks of life. Everyone is my teacher and I am continuously learning from whoever I meet. I am an avid reader of all manner of books. Because of my natural curiosity, new experiences and learnings seem to find me. As a result I have enjoyed ‘learning opportunities’ as well as adventures of all sorts, both pleasant and challenging, on every continent. Being exposed to different cultures, different histories and different environments helps to challenge static thinking and stimulates new ideas and new perspectives. Of course the journey of discovery is not necessarily about finding new landscapes, but rather developing new eyes and new insights.


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

I am a regular gym goer and fully appreciate that looking after my physical body allows me to perform actively and energetically in the boardroom and at home.

My ongoing fascination with psychology, philosophy and spirituality has given me an invaluable insight into the human mind in all its forms and motivations. I ran a coaching company for several years focussed on mindset, wellness balance and performance, where I learnt NLP, CBT and EQ. More recently I have written and co-written several self-help books around explaining and coping with stress and the turbulence of life. The most recent is ’Toxicum: Managing Toxic People’ and also speak regularly at conferences, special events and universities in Europe and the US.


What question would you like to ask a peer NED yourself? – hand over to next interview…

The role of a NED seems to have become ever more regulated and less of one in which the NED provides genuine strategic advice. To what extent do you agree with this statement and how do you see the role of the NED evolving in the next five to ten years?

You will find all published interviews at If  you like to take part in this interview series yourself, please contact

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




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