Becoming a Non-Executive Director (NED) is a career aspiration for many women.
It can be inspiring, richly rewarding and is a great way to learn from businesses in other industries and sectors. However, securing that first NED role can seem like a daunting task, especially when the boardroom is still widely seen as male dominated. According to a Deloitte report published last year, women account for just 15 per cent of seats at the boardroom table globally.
While there is still more to be done to address the gender imbalance at board level, there is also an opportunity for passionate and talented women to demonstrate the value they can bring to an organisation as a NED. Here are my five top pieces of advice for anyone thinking about embarking on the journey to becoming a NED and how to secure that important first role.
Make sure it’s what you want
Before you even think about applying, the most important thing is to ensure that the role of a NED is right for you. Not everybody is suited to the unique obligations and responsibilities that come with a NED position and the roles and responsibilities of the Executive Director and NED are very different. A NED should challenge, advise and support the board, rather than be involved in any implementation – a nuance which can be difficult to master at first!
You should also consider the responsibilities that come with the position. According to the Responsible Companies Act of 2006, NEDs have the same responsibilities as a full-time executive. If something were to go wrong, you would be just as accountable as any other board member working full-time. This is important when thinking about the industries that you might like to work in, and the type of work involved. .
Make sure you have the time to commit to the role; becoming a NED often takes between 15-25 working days a year so it’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when holding down a full-time job. It’s not just about turning up for board meetings. There is preparation required and often there is an obligation to sit on committees and steering groups, or even attend site visits.
Take a closer look at your career experience and background
Once you’ve established that a NED role is a good fit for you, the next step is to review your career experience and skillset to establish which type of position would best suit you. Anyone looking to become a NED for the first time should be aware that there are several stipulations as to the type of company it’s possible to work for.
For example, you wouldn’t be able to work for a business competitor, and you, or anyone in your close family, can’t have been employed by the company within the last five years. In addition, it’s important to remember that a key requirement for any NED is to be independent. As a result, any business or sector you choose shouldn’t be too close to home. You need to be able to maintain a degree of distance.
While relevant sector experience can be useful in getting you the job, it is by no means essential. Companies look to their NEDs to perform a very specific role, in advising and supporting the board and its strategy, and because of this, many of the skills required are transferrable. For example, if you have played a part in a rebrand, or a merger / acquisition, this will be invaluable as it is expertise that can be applied to any sector or discipline.
Know the right skills to highlight
While there are specific relevant skills learned throughout a career, a great deal comes down to interpersonal skills. The Chair of any company will want to know that you will be the right fit on the board, and that you have the right kind of personality for the role. As a result, it’s important to demonstrate independence of thought. A NED’s job is to ask the right questions and know when to do so. It is to challenge the board and ensure the right decisions are being made. Sound judgement and the ability to constantly provide support, rather than getting directly involved, is also key.
There are, however, a number of specific skills you might want to highlight. A Chair, or a CEO of any company for that matter, will want to see you have experience in developing strategy, rather than implementing it, and that you are comfortable at the planning and interrogation stage of any proposal. Other skills that are always relevant for NED roles include demonstrating knowledge of P&L and the balance sheet, an understanding of corporate governance and experience of handling major projects.
If you have the relevant skills and expertise for the role, do not be afraid to show it off. Women tend to not self-promote as much as men and when they are sitting in front of a forthright man at interview, this can sometimes be a problem. If you’ve handled a successful program, make sure you highlight it.
Do your research and be prepared
If you’ve decided to take the plunge and apply for a NED role, the normal rules for preparing for a job move apply. One thing we stress to all candidates, which is even more important when taking on a NED role, is the importance of doing your research on the company you are applying for, especially if it is your first time. Take a look at the make-up of the board, read any relevant company reports, and review the type of work it is doing.
Be confident and forthright when talking about your experience. Women can have a tendency to understate and undersell themselves at interview, but one of the most crucial character traits of a NED is knowing when to speak up and offer an opinion, so make sure you demonstrate you are capable of doing this.
In addition, you will need to be able to demonstrate an understanding of what being a NED entails and prove that you are cognizant of the kind of work you will be undertaking. Use your network and speak to people you already know in NED roles, so you are best prepared. Refresh your knowledge of the UK Corporate Governance Code and brush up on any relevant research and reports, such as the Higgs report into the role and effectiveness of NEDs. Finally, talk to expert recruiters that specialise in placing candidates in NED roles. Our team at Page Executive can give expert advice on how to tailor a CV and which skills to highlight.
Don’t leave it too late
Finally, don’t leave it too late. One of the most common questions we get asked is whether it’s better to have retired or still be in work when taking up a NED position. I would always advise it’s better to start on the NED journey when you’re still in a full-time job. The first NED role is always the hardest to land and can take some time. It’s better to start the process while you can still draw upon the expertise of your network and know that your knowledge and skills are up-to-date.
Finally, if you do choose to go for a NED role, remember to check with your employer before you apply. The time commitment means they will need to be bought in to the idea – but stressing the benefits that come with a NED position can help to persuade an unsure employer. The experience and skillset you will develop as part of this unique and challenging role will benefit not only you but also your current organisation.
About the author
Helen is an experienced recruiter with over 17 years’ financial recruitment experience. She specialises in the recruitment of senior finance professionals in the regions and is a Partner in the Page Executive Midlands Finance practice.
As the only Executive Finance practice, with regional strength, Helen leads on hosting an annual Executive Women in Business Event in the Midlands. Page Executive is committed to supporting the future generations of female leaders and the opportunity to build a bigger talent pool in the Midlands region. This investment is a replicated across the Page Executive Global Finance practice.