Nurole’s Future Global Leaders Programme (FGLP) is a specially-designed series of talks, workshops and panels to empower and connect the board-level talent of tomorrow

At the first event in London, Doug Gurr, Penny James and Rupert Soames discussed how to balance a non executive director role with a busy full-time job. Read on to see some of the insights they shared and find out more about the programme here.

Panellists: Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco; Penny James, CEO of Direct Line Group and Doug Gurr, Country Manager UK of Amazon.

A great boon for your career

All three panellists agreed that taking the right NED role could do great things for your career in terms of gaining new experiences, building contacts and learning new skills. Penny explained that her first NED role, “was the fundamental turning point in my career.” It made her want to take on executive roles and gave her credibility when applying. “Careers are collections of experiences”, she said. “What makes someone more capable is the variety and nature of what they've done.

Doug said NED roles help people, “massively trade up the level on which you are operating,” and gave the example of watching an experienced chair save a meeting that seems to be breaking down. Rupert agreed, encouraging new NEDs to “be like blotting paper” and soak up everything they see and hear in the boardroom.

Broaden your experience

One of the major benefits of an NED role is how it opens people up to new experiences. “They are wonderfully broadening,” Rupert said. “I think they should be mandatory for everybody who wants to be a CEO of a large company to have served sitting around a boardroom table as a NED where you are not the boss.” He deliberately picks NED roles that have nothing to do with his day job, and loves learning about a completely new sector.

Penny said that you can also learn a lot from a very different company in the sector you know. She gained great experience sitting on the board of an insurance company that operated in a much more values-driven way than her main employer. “Work out what is the thing that will make you wildly uncomfortable or will stretch you,” she said.

Choose carefully

All the panellists emphasised the need to be particular when picking your first NED role. “You’ll be surprised how hard it is to get out of these things once you’ve taken them on,” Doug said. He asks himself three questions when he is considering a role – Am I going to enjoy it? Will I learn something? Do I believe I can make an impact?

Rupert advised potential new NEDs to get out into the business as much as possible and build a wide range of sources to find out what is going on. He also cautioned against taking your first NED role in a business which is in any kind of difficulty. “Avoid trouble in your first one, because you’ve no idea when you’ve never done it before how troublesome trouble can be.”

Love wins

For Penny, it’s vital that you love the company you are joining and the people you’ll be sitting alongside at the boardroom table. This passion is also important when balancing an NED role with everything else in your life.

“You have to love it,” she said. “You’re going to be doing it at 5pm on a Sunday night when you could be with your family or having a drink, but you’re going to be there doing an audit committee pack. And you have to do it well – there’s no point doing it halfheartedly.”

Be prepared to step up when needed

One of the challenges the panel discussed was dealing with the tough moments that all boards face at one time or another. “There will come a moment when there is a crisis,” Doug said. “And when that moment comes, as an NED, you have to drop everything and go all in. You need to stand up and be counted, do a 2am conference call, whatever it takes.”

Penny agreed. “The real telling point for NEDs is when something is not going right. You’ve got to work out how hard you are going to put your foot down.”

Learn the lingo

“There’s a whole vocabulary you have to learn,” Rupert said, in terms of knowing how to phrase questions and concerns in the right way. For Penny, it’s about, “learning how to pitch questions as an enquiry rather than an accusation.”

Adding value

It’s important, the panel agreed, to work out how you will be able to add value to a board before taking an NED role. “I sometimes sit and watch NEDs and trustees who don’t really know what they are there for,” Doug said. “You’ve come all this way and read all these papers, you’ve sat there for two hours and you haven’t said a word? You’ve added zero value.”

Part of that, the panel said, was establishing your relationship with the board and the company’s other leaders from an early stage. Penny said that it was crucial to “understand that relationship on the way in.”

Getting started

Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, Penny advised allocating proper time to research what’s out there and explore different opportunities. “Chairmen are incredibly giving of their time to people who want to step onto the path, as are other non execs,” she said. “You’ll start to build that network before you even realise you are doing it.”

Don’t be surprised though if you don’t get the offers you want straight away. There may be various reasons why you aren’t right for a role, but the jigsaw pieces might fall into place further down the line, Penny says. Doug agrees, “Getting your first job is exponentially harder than getting your second job.” His main advice? “Just do it.”


Nurole is on a mission to change the way organisations bring the best people onto their boards. Click here to find out more about the Future Global Leaders Programme.