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.

Lisa Ashworth – experienced NED, mentor and CEO – sat down with us for the fourth instalment of our Route to NED series. She shared her insights and advice for aspiring NEDs, including the need to overhaul your CV, how to communicate effectively with executives once you’re on the board and the things that surprised her most about becoming a NED herself.

How did you know it was time to seek your first NED role?

I reached a point in my career where I needed more challenges. My day job just wasn’t enough to keep me mentally excited. Someone once told me that you spend the first third of your career learning how to do what you do, the second third actually doing it and the final third showing and teaching (learn, do, teach) other people how to do it. Well, I knew I was into the third cycle of my career.

What did you do to prepare?

Getting my first role was relatively straightforward, which never usually the case for most NED roles. It was straightforward in the sense that it came about through my network when I was approached by a friend who wanted me to join her on the board of a charitable organisation, rather than me actively seeking it out.

Having said that, my route to becoming a NED actually started about five years before my first role. At that time, I went on a training course to learn how to be a NED, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then went to see a headhunting group for help with securing my first role. They spent a lot of time telling me to change my CV – drastic changes. You see, for a NED CV, it’s all about the skills you bring, rather than what you’ve done. That was very useful advice.

It was when we hit the next stage of the process, however, that things changed for me. They wanted me to tell them all the bigwigs I knew in the industry and then write to them telling them I’d like to be a NED. That’s when I got frustrated. I could have just done that myself!

Plus, I didn’t want to rely on all the people I know in the industry – it just wasn’t my style. I come across as an extrovert, but I’m actually an introvert. The thought of going to the great and the good and asking them for help embarrassed me. So I hit the pause button on my pursuit of being a NED. It was only later, when I was approached for the charitable NED role, that this whole section of my career opened up for me.

What would you recommend people do to secure their first role?

Honestly, much will depend on your personality with regards to actually pursuing and securing roles. There are things you can do, however, to prepare yourself. I would thoroughly recommend reworking your CV, as I said above. You have to flip it a good 180-degrees. You have to showcase the key skills you bring to the table, but the details where you got those skills is almost irrelevant.

Seriously consider working for a charity. Everything you do, you do for a good cause and you can really throw yourself at it. Getting a role that’s free, like with a charity, is also a piece of cake in comparison to getting a paid gig, so it’s a good place to start. You do need to choose wisely, however. Pick a cause you feel strongly about and empathise with, because you have to give a lot to a charitable organisation. From the board meetings to the fundraising and events, it requires a lot, and they will take a lot.

You also need to work on your interview skills. Interviewing for a non-executive role is really different from what you might know in the executive world, just as being a NED is totally different from being an exec. Think of it this way – like a sister or a mother, but you come have to come at both roles in completely different ways, even though you are the same person.

You have to know that your role as a NED is to support, help, advise and challenge, but you won’t be rolling your sleeves up to actually do the work. It’s about changing your mindset and knowing to turn on the right words and phrases. If you are considering being a NED, you have to learn how to take a step back and stop doing. It’s truly a skill to learn not to do something, and rather advise, encourage and excite others to do it.

What surprised you about being a NED?

It’s about that distance – the gap between advising and doing. It was surprising and challenging, but you know what? It was exciting as well. And you can be much more magnanimous when you don’t actually have to execute the plans.

However, this element of the job also has a flipside in that the execs can just ignore you. I was pretty shocked by that in those early days. You can be an expert in your field with years of experience and the execs will hear what you say and then totally disregard it.

What advice would you give to NEDs about to start their first role?

Remember the chair that you’re sitting in – at all times. You cannot speak down to the CEO. You cannot patronise the CFO. You shouldn’t challenge the chair. You can make your voice heard and impactful, however, you just need to know how to do it.

If you want to call something out, do it privately. If you want to suggest something or change their minds, don’t just tell them what to do. Be complimentary and supportive and challenge them to think a bit differently, in just the right way. It’s all about how you communicate. So use your experience and tell them what you did, what you learned and how it helped you. Essentially, allow room for the CEO or CFO to decide if they want to take your advice because they don’t have to.

I think the role of a NED is almost like an iceberg and what you see in the boardroom is just the tip, the rest goes on behind the scenes. You work with the organisation to find out what it truly does. You have conversations with the team and give them advice from the sidelines.

Also, as much as you are in a position to help the company, you also get to learn a tremendous amount as a NED. Be open to that. The experience you get outside of your current job, outside of your field, all feeds back and helps you. Having the honour of working at a very high level in another organisation and seeing how it ticks is amazing.

Would you recommend training or coaching to aspiring NEDs?

I really enjoyed the training I undertook and would absolutely recommend it. I’m also a real advocate of coaching. I would say though, that if you do embark on additional learning, make the most of it. Don’t just go through the motions. I find the lion’s share of people don’t actually follow through and do it as rigorously as it requires. Many people also don’t take the advice they’re given, which is disappointing.

Keep a notebook or a file and house all the information you’re given in it. Write up your notes so you can read them again in 20 years’ time, or condense them down to the three key pieces of information that really resonated with you. Just keep a log and keep the information constantly flowing. Keep it close to hand so you can go through it again on a rainy day and refresh yourself. People don’t really change, but what you take away or what feels important to you will evolve based on where you are and what you’re doing. You never know what might suddenly feel illuminating or helpful.

It’s never going to be a waste of time to learn something new – whether it’s about a new subject area, or just learning more about yourself. So if someone gives you advice or insight, take it.

Written by

Lisa Ashworth

Lisa Ashworth is an experienced CEO, NED, trustee and mentor in the media, news, financial and martech sectors. After studying law, Lisa has spent 20 years working in large PLCs and, more recently, PE and VC backed businesses. During that time she was actively involved in multiple successful acquisitions and disposals.

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