Serving as a non-executive director (“NED”) can be a rewarding complementary role for an executive, or a career in itself if you choose a portfolio approach. It can add variety to your work, enhance your network and status, develop your skills and more – not to mention the considerable benefits you can bring to the companies you work with.

There are numerous routes you can take towards becoming a NED. To provide guidance and best learnings about this career path, we’ve put together a series of interviews with expert NEDs.

In this first instalment, we sat down with Jeremy Rickman, Managing Director of Rickman Consulting Limited and Chairman at BIE, to speak with him about his route to NED and discover his best advice for those looking to embark on a similar journey.

What motivated you to seek your first NED role?

I was actually in full-time employment and it just hit me that I didn’t want to be a full-time employee anymore. I’d already been on a few boards by that point, I’d seen what it was like and I knew I wanted to make the switch. I wanted to have more of a portfolio existence, rather than be full-time with one company.

I realised that, for my entire career, I’d been building a portfolio of skills, from engineer and accountant through to CFO, Professional Services Coach and mentor. I was ready to wrap all of those skills together and use them to help people. And now I do. I get to do something that doesn’t actually feel like work anymore.

I enjoy the cut and thrust of every day – moving nimbly from client meeting to board meeting as the day requires. It’s a challenge to make sure you’re juggling all your responsibilities well and effectively, but it’s fun. I feel like my entire career has led to this point.

Securing your first NED role can be difficult. What steps did you take?

This is one of the major things I talk to my clients about. For me – and I would strongly recommend this to anyone considering taking the NED route – I secured a few non-profit board roles first. You get to help a really deserving group, and get hands-on knowledge and experience. You start to learn about the different committees on a board and see how they tick. You learn how the governance works. It’s a good stepping stone to getting a non-executive role in a commercial company if you haven’t had one before.

Your first role is going to be more difficult to get, so try not to be discouraged, but it’s also the most important. It sets a precedent for the size and type of companies you’ll be working with, and establishes how people see you. You want to send the right message to the market about where you fit, so choose wisely.

How do you recommend going about getting NED roles?

When you’re starting out, you need to lay the groundwork. You’re essentially about to run a campaign to find a role. So you need to be prepared.

  1. Use your network – it’s one of your most valuable tools. Properly map your network (a spreadsheet works well), choosing the top 30 or 40 contacts who could positively impact your job search. Around 50% of the NED opportunities are going to come from people you already know. Reach out to them, document everything and make sure that if they hear something, you’ll be at the front of their mind and they might consider recommending you for the role.

  2. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete and set up properly. I did that so people in my network knew that I had left employment, set up my own business and was now looking for NED roles. I made sure I was crystal clear with regards to what I was looking for, including the sectors and markets I wanted to work in.

    State that you’re actively seeking non-executive roles in the “About” section on your profile, rather than using the “Open to work” button, as it’s more appropriate to your level. And it will help the relevant recruiters find you. I actually got approached out of the blue with an offer through LinkedIn – it’s a great resource.

  3. Be open to opportunities. Interestingly, many of my roles ended up coming from companies I’d worked with in other capacities. Sometimes your route to NED won’t be a straight shot to the board – maybe you’ll do some coaching or some advisory work, and then get asked to step up.

  4. Do your research. Working with a recruitment company can be a good way of finding a role, but don’t assume that the recruiters you’ve worked with in the past for executive roles will be the ones to speak to for NED roles. It may be the same recruitment company, but different people; board recruiters are almost a ring-fenced group in each firm that do this sort of work. Find out who the core board headhunters/recruiters are in your market and go talk to them. They will probably be doing 45% of the relevant opportunities out there in the market.

  5. Be proactive. In addition to recruitment companies, there are lots of people and platforms who can actively help you get NED roles.

Consider signing up to the online executive search platform, Nurole, for example. The team there do more non-exec roles in the UK market than anybody else. You could also enlist the help of a specialist to coach you. They will charge a fee, so it depends on your circumstances, but if you want to get into the domain of public companies, it might be worth it. Specialists can help you get your CV and board profile right, perfect your interview techniques, get to know the right headhunters and help you do outreach. Essentially they make sure you’re well-positioned to get a role.

It’s not uncommon for NEDs to hold similar positions in a variety of companies. Do you have any advice?

Be sure to avoid conflict of interest. You don’t want to sit on two boards that are competing with each other. I tend to assure the companies I work with that I will keep them up to date on what I’m doing and for whom, and give them the option to veto if there’s a competitive issue.

You also need to be prepared that, whatever length of time you’ve agreed to commit to a role, it’s probably going to take twice as long as you think. It’s just the nature of non-exec roles.

Beyond that, you also have to be prepared to put in the time to really understand the business and get to know everyone. And you have to stay up to date with the industry and go to events – the executives don’t always have time to do that, so that’s an area where you can add even more value.

You also have to make sure to stay abreast of best practice for boards, just to make sure you’re doing everything the way it should be done and the way, legally, it has to be done. So keep these extra time commitments in mind when you’re considering taking on a new role.

What makes a successful NED?

You’ve got to learn to exercise a different set of muscles in a non-executive role, compared to an executive one. You’re engaged with the business and advising it, but you’re not actually the hands-on individual. You’re not the solution, you’re helping others be the solution. There’s got to be distance between you and everybody in the business in terms of how you operate.

You need to remember that your responsibilities are ultimately to the shareholders. That’s who you represent. You are there to support the CEO and be an advisor to them and their team, and how you do that will depend on your specific skills. For me, my backbone is my financial skills, then there’s the leadership piece and finally the coaching and mentorship I provide to the team. You also have to really know the industry so you can think strategically about what’s coming around the corner and set the business up to get ahead of the competition.

In my opinion, if you want to be successful, you shouldn’t limit the value you add to just board activities. You will often provide support to senior executives and sometimes that means providing mediation or conflict resolution within the business. Or taking advantage of your privileged position and formally or informally helping team members unblock issues from the top down.

A good NED also often becomes a coach or a mentor to some of the senior execs in the business, depending on their skillset. I would recommend taking a course so you can understand what good coaching looks like if this is something you want to provide. When you learn what a real coach does, you realise that it’s a totally different skillset. Henley Business School, Mayler Campbell and Ashridge Business School offer great courses.

Ultimately, being successful is about adding value. You will be amazed at how much value you can add by bringing the skills and experience you’ve gained in your career to the boardroom table.

Written by

Jeremy Rickman

Jeremy has worked extensively within in the global recruitment industry, during which time he built his reputation as one of the pre-eminent global CFO head-hunters as a Senior Partner within one of the world’s largest executive search firms.

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