Increasingly individuals are required to manage their own career. Long gone are the days of a ‘job for life’ where we could work the way up the corporate ladder in order to satisfy our career aspirations. Now, more and more careers require an element of ‘self-management’ where the onus of responsibility lies in our own hands. For us to do this, we need to be equipped with the skills that will help us to get the most out of our own careers. Andrew Tallents offers his thoughts on using self-leadership as the most effective approach to career management. Self-leadership is the process by which one can influence oneself in order to achieve personal goals and objectives, through a process of self-awareness, self-confidence and self-efficacy. This article focusses on executives making the transition into Non-Executive Directorship (NED) roles.

Discover how Nurole can help you transition into a NED role


Being the master of ones’ own career destiny can be an exhilarating concept. It suggests opportunities and possibilities that are available to us that may have otherwise been blocked from reach. If this is true, it does not happen by chance. A large amount of effort is required to successfully manage ones’ career; effort to plan, to make decisions or choose between options, ensuring that each decision adheres to specific career aspirations and goals. The academic literature refers to this effort as ‘career agency’ and discusses the extent to which an individual has the capacity to make meaningful decisions about their career options and then act on them too (Mainiero and Sullivan 2005). This is where self-leadership is essential. Self-leadership is a process of reflection, consideration and direction. Firstly, it helps an individual evaluate their core skills and abilities, then it allows them to consider how these elements match their career objectives (by default it may suggest ways for the individual to navigate ways to fill in any shortfall of skills). Finally, as the individual gains more insight about themselves and their competencies, they can make more proactive, meaningful decisions about how they can achieve their career goals and not just wait for the right opportunity to fall into their lap.

Defining your career objective

Research on executives transitioning into a Non-Executive role has shown that many executives consider the move from exec to non-exec to be an evolution or a natural next step in their career (Brickley et al., 1999; Fich, 2005). Executives see a NED role as a way of applying their existing experience or skills in a new or wider context, or as a way of creating broader networking opportunities or to learn new skills (such as corporate governance). But too often executives do not adequately consider if a NED role is a role that they really want to pursue. They do not spend enough time considering if this transition is a desired career objective as opposed to an expected career objective. This may be true of CEOs, executives reaching retirement age or for those leaders who have been approached directly to join a board.

What do I want to do?

Not all executives are naturally suited to a NED role. Defining one’s career objectives upfront is an essential part of self-leadership. What is it that you really want to do? And why? It sounds simple but it is too often overlooked when persuasion, flattery or expectations supersede it.

Take for instance the element of expectation on executives regarding a non-exec position; they may feel that they have to choose the NED role because they have reached a peak in their current job, have spent several years in the industry and want to give something back. But the reality is that NED roles are not the same as executive functions and some execs may find the required balance of advising through remote consultation too frustrating to do a NED role justice, this is especially true of proactive, hands-on executives. This means, whilst they may have the right experience and skills to be a useful NED, they might be dissatisfied in the role.

I was working with a CEO who had recently sold his business for £30m. He was looking for his next challenge and presumed, as did many of his colleagues, that he should take his knowledge in the leisure and restaurant industry and place this experience in a NED role. I asked him, ‘what would you personally get out of a non-exec role’ but he couldn’t answer the question so I prompted him to visualise an opportunity to work with an old colleague in a buy and build opportunity, and he was thrilled. It was clear he didn’t want to be a non-exec, he still wanted to be a hands-on leader.

Allocating sufficient time to think ‘what is it that I want to do?’ will prove ultimately more fruitful than simply assuming a NED role is the next, natural step. This mature approach will provide an honest answer to vital questions, bringing with it much-needed clarity to the next stage of managing ones’ career.

Back to basics

How is this done? Spending time reflecting on one’s career to date is an essential part of the analysis process. One needs to mentally strip back the elements of one’s career to identify parts that were enjoyable, and which were not, identifying skills and competencies that have been gained and also recognising areas for growth and development, whilst retaining a focus on questions such as ‘what are my own personal career objectives, and will these be met by making this next career move?’. This process will offer the insight and the authenticity required to make focussed, clear and purposeful career decisions.

Part of self-leadership means having the confidence to undertake this process and lead ones-self into the next role if, and when, that role is right for them. For executives who are thinking about a NED role, it is important that they undergo this process to make sure that a move to a NED is for them. If it is, then they are now in a better position to understand why they want to be a NED, they type of board they want to work with, and they will be able to articulate this with conviction.

It is also important to hold out for the ideal role that you want. I have worked with clients that thought that offering themselves as a school governor, trustee for a charity or in an NHS foundation would be a good way to get experience as a NED. It is, but only if you are interested in the content of the role and not because it is the first opportunity that is presented to you. I had one client who had been pigeonholed in the charity sector and it took her 5 years to gain a NED role in the commercial sector. My advice is to clearly identify where you want to be and try to hold out for the perfect role.

What next?

It is important to recognise that the road to becoming a NED might not be easy. Writing a compelling NED-CV will be a good start, ensuring that you articulate your key strengths, ambitions and rationale for your NED aspirations with passion, authenticity and integrity. One needs to be aware that each board differs in what they require from a NED. Some want previous experience, others are looking to fill a certain functional experience that might be missing from the current executive team and some boards are focussed on gaining specific contacts amongst a particular community of stakeholders (Singh and Vinnicombe, 2004) so unless you meet precise criteria, some of which might be out of your control, setbacks are inevitable. Seeing each application and its outcome as a learning experience will help to reduce disappointment. Networking is invaluable. The process is not always an easy one to do on one’s own so don’t be afraid to reach out for help during this exciting phase of your career.

Andrew Tallents has over twenty years’ experience in delivering a wide range of human capital solutions. He formed The Tallents Partnership in 2017 and works with business leaders to improve leadership capability through career management, coaching and leadership services. Read more about The Tallents Partnership here.

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