Route to NED: an interview with Rakhi Williams

A older business woman looking off the left. She is white, has blonde hair and is wearing a green top.

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 the third instalment of our NED series, we spoke with Rakhi Williams – experienced CEO, transformation officer, strategist, FTSE 100 executive and NED – about her experiences and her advice for aspiring NEDs.

How did you become a NED?

I didn’t actively seek out a NED role. I’d been approached about roles in the past and they had sparked an interest, but I didn’t plan to become a NED. In the end, it happened organically rather than deliberately, as part of the growth of my executive career. I thought the experience would make me a more well-rounded and effective executive and give me a chance to further expand and develop my skills.

If you’re at a certain stage of your executive career, then it makes sense to pursue a NED role – it’s a natural progression. I notice more and more people seeking out NED roles while they’re still executives because this provides a great steppingstone to a portfolio NED career at some point in the future.

My first NED role transpired as part of a complex business situation. We’d reduced our ownership level of a business we had acquired, and it became a joint venture. My company needed an executive team member to sit on the board to support its interests, and I was selected to join the board. 

How did you go about approaching the challenge of a NED role?

My company supported me by engaging a NED coach to work with me. At the time, I was looking to take on a bigger role within the company, but there wasn’t a right next step for me available at that time. The company didn’t want me to leave, so offering me the coaching was their way of encouraging me to stay and develop. If you’re in the right organisation and they want you to grow and develop, they’ll see the benefit in preparing you to become a NED – I was fortunate enough to receive such development.

What experience helped you on your route to NED?

My track record as an executive combined with my background in professional services (corporate finance and strategy consulting) paved the way for my NED roles. I had experience working with boards, specifically leading M&A committees and strategy conferences while also participating in capital fundraising and risk committees. This ticked a lot of boxes for NED roles.

I was also lucky in my executive career to have been exposed to a wide range of boards and leaders, which helped me to understand what to expect as a NED. Each board had a different approach and culture. Some were very involved whilst others operated at an arm’s length. These experiences really helped me understand the role of a NED and what it takes to be a great NED.  

What experience would you recommend to those looking to develop their NED CV?

Firstly, I would encourage people seeking out NED roles to educate themselves, so they have full awareness of what’s involved in terms of the role and responsibilities.  Secondly, continue building a strong track record as a C-Suite executive in a listed company environment.  Beyond this, I would say try to gain experience in an international office so you can demonstrate a growth mindset. The same goes for gaining experience in a private business or a start-up and building or scaling a company, which can complement large company experience.

In terms of boosting your relevance in the current climate, I would also encourage NED candidates to get as much digital and transformation experience as possible. I’ve worked in the transformation space for the past 15 years and this experience has bolstered my CV for NED roles. I know what it takes to change businesses from their core, and that’s incredibly valuable to boards, especially in a post-Covid world.  

What makes a successful NED?

In my opinion, a successful NED brings breadth and depth of relevant executive experience, energy and commitment, and an independent and challenging point of view. Being resilient is also key to managing the difficult times a NED might have to face.

I think having empathy and integrity are also important characteristics to being a successful NED. After all, the board acts as the bridge between shareholders and executives, who sometimes have misaligned interests. Successful NEDs need to be able to see situations from different points of views and advise on what the best outcome should be for the company. This will help you navigate tough issues and provide appropriate support.

Lastly, being curious and engaged are also important criteria for successful NEDs. It helps to be curious, as this leads to a better understanding of what’s really going on in the business and allows the NED to support the executive team in the best possible way. Also, NEDs should spend time with people outside of the executive team and listen to their experiences so they can gather more datapoints on how the business is really performing.

Any key pieces of advice for those looking to secure their first role?

Firstly, make sure you find the right NED role, one that allows you to thrive on the board. If you choose the right roles, you’ll be much more successful in the long-term, and it’s a much more enjoyable experience if you can really add value to the board you’re joining.

Secondly, do your research and go in with your eyes wide open. I once made the mistake of taking a role based on trust, and quickly found myself in a situation I wasn’t comfortable with. With NED roles, you can’t extricate yourself easily when things go wrong, so know what you’re getting into in terms of the risks involved and make sure the role is right for you.  

Lastly, don’t rush into board roles, you will know when the time and role are right. If the process of finding a NED role isn’t going well for you, you might need to give yourself more time to develop your skills and track record as an executive.

Written by

Rakhi Williams

Rakhi Williams has 25 years experience working in global blue-chip organisations and leading transformation and growth in the media and information services sector.

Most recently she was CEO of GlobalData Media. Rakhi has also held senior leadership roles at Hyve Group plc, UBM plc, Tesco plc and HIT Entertainment, and NED roles at UBM plc and Hyve Group plc. Rakhi has an MBA from the Tuck School of Business and resides in London with her husband and three children.

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