three aspiring non executive directors in conversation
Jul 8, 2021 Nurole logo
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Nurole guide for first time non-executive directors

25 FTSE 100 and 250 Chairs provide advice to aspiring first time non-executive directors.

Getting your first non-executive board role isn’t easy. It isn’t a race where the best person gets the job. Instead, you have to show you’re the perfect match - that your skills and temperament best complement those of 6 to 10 other members of the board.

As such, it’s good sense to learn from the best in the business. Based on the experience and advice of 25 FTSE 100 and 250 board Chairs, we’ve created this guide to help you on your way.

As the largest platform tailored to board level roles, we’re democratising access to these opportunities so that boards hire the strongest candidates, not just those who happen to know the right people. We’ve helped over 300 aspiring board members find their first board position.

We are grateful to all the contributors* to this guide for sharing their wisdom.

What qualities do you look for when hiring for your board?

Ask different people and you will get different responses on the ingredients for success in the boardroom. Certain Chairs privileged empathy or emotional quotient while others looked for more traditional metrics of intelligence.

Our view is that certain qualities are simply essential, like possessing good judgment and integrity. However, the best boards also embrace differences. Diverse and inclusive boards are better placed to tackle complex challenges.

There isn’t a single archetypal ‘ideal board member’; instead, different board members bring their personal qualities and professional backgrounds to the table, complementing their peers in the boardroom.

Board members should be...

  • Curious: Be inquiring and ask questions to understand better.
  • Objective: Be rational, perceptive and thorough when thinking through the big problems.
  • Collaborative: Have a collegiate mindset, and be generous with sharing your knowledge.
  • Good listener: Be willing to listen and understand viewpoints different from yours.
  • Emotionally intelligent: Demonstrate emotional intelligence and empathy when persuading and influencing others.
  • Open to change: Realise that situations change and that yesterday’s answer may be wrong for today.
  • No egos: Work towards the common goal rather than showing off your toughness or intelligence.

What would you advise someone seeking their first non-executive director role?

Getting a position on a board is about cultural fit. Your personality is one of the most important parts of how you present yourself. A chair once remarked that a sense of humour was the most important quality for a board member; this is what you fall back on during a tricky discussion to defuse tensions.

Our advice is not to neglect your personality and working style when you apply for any role. Give some thought to how you would answer the headhunting chestnut question: “How would your colleagues describe you?”

We’ve boiled down the advice received from the FTSE Chairs into 3 key ideas.

No. 1: Sell yourself

Getting a NED position is like any other job search – you have to sell yourself.

Articulate your working style and strengths in your CV alongside your work experience. Have strong references available. Get an experienced NED to review your CV - you may be underselling yourself.

Be as clear as you can about what you can bring to a board. Do your own homework, don’t be complacent, and think about the appointment from the company’s perspective.

No. 2: Be prepared

This process will take time; be patient.

Understand why you want to become a NED; you may well be asked this in an interview and your answer could be what wins you the role.

Do your homework; what have I got to offer this company? What do I think it needs? What are their challenges and gaps? Be really well prepared by studying the company, its Chair, CEO, senior independent director, and others who will interview you.

No. 3: Be discerning

Be open to a wide range of options, but recognise that you may well be pigeonholed by your past experience initially. Really play to your strengths. Don’t think you can be a generalist straight away. Instead, trade your specific knowledge to get general experience on boards.

Take your time and find something you really like and somewhere you know you can make a difference.

Decide which companies really interest you, don’t join a company whose business is of no interest.

What’s your advice on how best to network?

Some people value networking more than others. But there are ways of making it more effective. It can be hard to get authentic and unfiltered advice, which is why we have published the exact unedited answers Chairs gave when posed the question above:

  • Roundtable lunches and dinners with headhunters bringing together CEOs and NEDs work very well. A headhunter arranged for me to see a couple of FTSE chairmen which was invaluable.
  • Look at businesses / industries you like and have genuine interest in and network at those events - for example, the BRC events are good for retail.
  • Spread your net widely as possible; follow up all leads however unlikely; narrow down areas of interest as soon as possible.
  • Build relationships with a few prominent people who really rate you.
  • Get involved in functional organisations and conferences. Take part as a speaker or panelist.
  • Don’t overdo it. Choose wisely and make sure you’re visible by asking incisive questions or demonstrating your stardom.
  • Drinks parties are less effective than round tables as they lack structure. No harm in having a drink!
  • Make contact with a wide range of people, ask if you can come and see them to ask for their advice. Have a CV ready if they ask for it. Follow up to keep them in touch with what you are doing after a sensible interval.
  • Make it clear in the nicest possible way you have put the “For Sale “ sign up. Many recipients of networking are being worked on by many people – make sure that they understand the relevance of your experience and your understanding of how that can be brought to bear around the board table as a non-exec. It is not just about governance and process, as some people claim. Fundamentally it is about adding value – and then understanding how the various aspects of the role and your experience can achieve that.
  • Aim for quality not quantity in terms of contacts.

If this was helpful, we’ve got plenty of other resources that might be helpful to you, such as our FAQs for aspiring NEDs and 10 tips for those seeking their first board role.

If you are looking for board roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help. Membership is free and confidential - click here to find out more.

"In my world I get invited to all the networking events linked to insurance but I love the way Nurole gives you access to a much broader range of networks."

Penny James, Deputy CFO at Prudential plc, NED at Admiral Group

What’s the next step for you on your board journey?

*Thank you to all the contributors to this guide: Dame Helen Alexander, Mark Asplin, John Barton, Kevin Beeston, Sir Win Bischoff, Bruce Carnegie-Brown, Dame Alison Carnwath, Gareth Davis, Ian Davis, Nick Ferguson, Simon Fraser, Anita Frew, Debbie Hewitt, Michael Higgins, Richard Huntingford, Penny James, Sir Laurie Magnus, Derek Mapp, Kathryn Matthews, Orna Ni-Chionna, Peter Norris, Anne Pringle, Darren Shapland, Sybella Stanley, Tim Stevenson, Robert Swannell, Andrew Sykes, Sir David Verey, Brian Wallace.

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