Jun 22, 2022 Nurole logo
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5 Board Members Placed This Year Share Their Insights For A Successful Non-Executive Career

Our podcast, Enter the Boardroom with Nurole, has drawn in a range of talented Non-Executives who have shared unique insights on how they’ve delivered in the boardroom. 

Here are five insights from five Non-Executives we’ve placed on boards this year.

1. “A good board member should not take over the organisation, but try to understand the extraordinary individuals and teams in front of them.” - Eric Collins

As an investor director with a wealth of experience in the tech sector, Eric Collins has used his board positions to shepherd a number of start-ups to their next growth phase. In his episode of Enter the Boardroom, he emphasised the importance of effective and empathetic communication between board members and executive teams in driving results.

Eric likened his role to that of a custodian who has to be willing to give up power to ensure the organisation is given the best possible strategic leadership without imposing on or restricting executives. When developing a strategy, therefore, a successful board member should understand the executives they work with as individuals and peers to guarantee their objectives are conveyed as accurately and efficiently as possible.

There are a number of ways this can be done, but Eric recommended making a conscious effort to bridge the divide between one’s personal culture and values to those of the organisation at large. In doing so, a board member can divorce themselves from any preconceived notions about ownership or factionalism to understand the bigger picture that drives success.

2. “Boards should not just be there to rubber-stamp what is assumed to be a well-functioning executive team.” - Graham Hobson

Graham Hobson founded and successfully exited Photobox.com before becoming a board advisor for tech startups in need of his blend of highly technical executive- and board-level skills. 

At one point early in his career, Graham was appointed to a non-executive role with a company selling a white-labelled version of what Photobox.com sold. In reading the board packs they provided before each meeting, he eventually realised that the financial records of the company were off. When he brought the falling profit margins and average order value to the board’s attention, however, he was quickly waved off with flimsy excuses and justifications.

Though he was initially reluctant to impose on his fellow board members, Graham noticed that the downwards trends continued until eventually, four months later, the company was on the verge of insolvency. Graham brought this to their attention and finally managed to convince his fellow board members that their strategy was not bearing results.  

The experience taught Graham the importance of avoiding groupthink and inciting positive changes in the boardroom to reduce the risk of strategic blindspots. It is especially pressing for newly appointed board members to be willing and able to voice any perceived concerns, as the fresh perspective offered by a newcomer can immediately highlight long-standing oversights and disrupt a potentially catastrophic status quo.

3. “Board terms are relatively short, so you need to make an impact quickly and you need to do it consistently in order to build the legacy of that business and yourself as a board member.” - Vikas Shah MBE DL

Vikas Shah’s entrepreneurial background has given him an appreciation for the importance of striking while the iron is hot. In his roles on the boards of major enterprises like Shoosmiths and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Vikas has made a point of establishing his intent and impact as a new board member as quickly as possible.

To this end, Vikas takes the time to conduct one-to-one clinics with key individuals early into his tenure as a board member. These clinics prioritise a combination of active listening and diplomatic conversation to help him understand the dynamics at various levels of an organisation. He also encourages meetings and reports to be developed and disclosed in a workshop setting where executives can strategise in a more structured and dissective manner.

An accurate early diagnosis of the business and board practice that avoids the cognitive biases of data filtered through executives and other non-executives adds significant value to boardroom discussion. It can also reflect the value add of a new board hire to establish potential for future internal and external board positions should they be made available.

4. “My advice while working at Microsoft was that you need to be concise, numerate and objective. If you were those three things, you would go far in the company. I think boards need those same qualities to avoid making catastrophic failures.” - Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson’s career in tech has spanned over 30 years and includes a pivotal role in guiding Microsoft from its nascent stages to its current position as one of the biggest multinational corporations in history. 

Neil’s time at Microsoft gave him a three-point code of conduct for being an optimal board member which prioritises being concise, numerate and objective in your approach to everything. He argues that objectivity becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the more time someone spends at a company, as a combination of corporate/board culture and personal bias inevitably bleed into decision-making. 

Avoiding the catastrophic failures associated with biased thinking is a process of constantly questioning and evaluating board conduct. An objective-minded board member should ask:

  • What is the board trying to achieve?
  • What is important to the board and how can we ensure that stays clear?
  • How does the board secure the most significant chance of success?

Aligning board meetings with these questions to keep objectivity at the forefront of any strategic decisions is made easier through numerate and concise discussion rooted in data-driven observations and an adherence to a clear corporate vision. While it isn’t the responsibility of a single board member to make sure those factors are in place, an impactful board member can help push decision-makers towards those endpoints through some of the methods highlighted above.

5. “My advice while working at Microsoft was that you need to be concise, numerate and objective. If you were those three things, you would go far in the company. I think boards need those same qualities to avoid making catastrophic failures.” - Neil Thompson

With her years of experience as a Non-Executive Director for companies like Campbell Page, Unum and the Bank of London and the Middle East, Joanne Hindle’s advice for up-and-coming non-executives is to find a way to turn past experiences and knowledge into practical insights in the boardroom. 

Transferable skills and industry experience are a natural part of Joanne’s outlook on being an effective board member, but these insights can come from more unconventional sources as well. 

One example from Joanne’s career involved applying the processes of large organisations to smaller organisations and vice versa to address infrastructural and strategic blindspots. While Chairing the board of a large society, Joanne implemented the membership focus of a smaller organisation she had worked with by having members meet with select board executives for a one-on-one feedback session on the organisation’s service. In doing so, she uncovered new information on the demographic makeup of the society’s membership which helped guide future strategy towards more accurately meeting its needs.

As a prospective board member, observing the way in which companies are run at both the executive and the leadership levels can highlight frameworks and practices that may be of use at a later stage in your career. Non-Executive Directors are sought after for their unique professional perspectives, and those perspectives are often the result of piecing a cross-section of ideas into a cohesive and personalised business philosophy. 

If you are looking for senior executive and non-executive director roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help.

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