When stepping up to the role of CEO or taking on that first ever non-executive director position, it’s easy to make the mistake of trying to do too much too soon. The reality is that while you’ll have to make your presence felt, the smartest move in the early days is to take the time to get a real understanding of the business.

Bernard Cragg, Senior Non-executive Director for Mothercare and a Criticaleye Associate, says: “If you are lucky enough to have a board populated with serious business people, they will try and help you. But listen to what’s going on; find out what the issues are, how people operate and if there are catalysts or detractors... Experience tells you: don’t act too quickly.”
It’ll be a true test of intellect and character. Paul Brennan, Chairman of technology company OnApp, says: “Most people don’t know when they are ready – which is why they are scared to death [about stepping up] and that’s a good thing. You should be nervous, tense and excited.”
Mary Jo Jacobi, another Criticaleye Associate and Non-executive Director for commodities trading advisor Mulvaney Capital Management, says: “You don’t want to show weakness or fallibility. You have this feeling... that you’re supposed to know everything; that you must be able to answer every question. But if you’ve just made this big change you’ll have more questions than answers.”
In the path to landing a role as CEO or taking on a chairman’s role, it’s increasingly vital to have a variety of skills in your locker. Mark Powles, CEO of water supplier Business Stream, says: “You need to adjust your perspective. Every step up brings with it an element of fear… I’m a great believer in breadth as opposed to depth at a senior leadership level, because you want to bring experiences from as many different situations as you possibly can. 
“In my experience, there has not been a problem presented to me that I haven’t faced from a different angle in a previous role, and [you just need] the ability to adapt those generic business principles to the challenge you’ve got in front of you.”
Chris Stooke, Non-executive Chairman at Miles Smith Insurance, comments: “As you become more experienced you can bring war stories and learning points from one type of organisation to another. An example I found recently has been negotiating banking terms... I had to do it quite a lot as an executive and that experience has been pretty helpful as a non-executive in two or three circumstances.”
It’s a point taken up by Bob Mann, Executive Chairman of cloud computing specialist Relayware: “I’ve been an interim CEO, I’ve been a chairman, I’ve mentored CEOs, I’ve fired CEOs, and I’ve stepped in as CEO. I can evaluate whatever the situation is and work out which of my personalities is supposed to turn up and which personality I have to transform into.”
In the public eye
Whether it’s a role in a private company or a public one, it’s important to research the business and the responsibilities that will come with the role. Paul comments that “assuming that your brief is 100 per cent accurate from day one is probably prone to disaster”.
Gerry Brown, Chairman of Novaquest Capital Management, an investor in the biopharmaceutical sector, says: “At the beginning it is extremely important that there is a proper induction programme and that the person joining is up to speed with the business, the management, and that they have the confidence to really contribute.”
According to Gerry, NED roles are becoming a lot harder: “In the past there were fewer demands from the public but now it doesn’t matter if you are a public company, private company or private equity-backed, you can easily end up being in the news....and people will immediately focus on how the business has been run. That, in terms of preparation, is something that most directors are not ready for – how to deal with the media and media issues.”
There will be shocks and surprises but, then again, if you’re serious about a top position in a business then handling the unknown and unexpected has to be part of the attraction. 
For Bernard, the key is to plan in advance so as to ensure that you don’t appear out of your depth when an opportunity does arise: “You have to increase your exposure to the boardroom to understand how it operates and what goes on in there. It can be intimidating if you’ve got people around you who are very experienced.”
Mary says: “I’ve changed jobs and companies a lot and every company has its own culture, and every company, despite what they say, has its own politics, and it is helpful to have an understanding of that culture and those politics if you come from outside, even if you have been on the board as a non-exec.”
It comes back to the dangers of assuming too much or failing to appreciate that, despite your previous successes, there is still plenty to learn. Bob says: “Coming into a role as a chairman when your experience, as in my case, was highly operational... you had to be very careful. It was a case of putting your ego at the door, because it wasn’t all about you; it is really all about the CEO...  Then you had to [work out] how to implement programmes to make the CEO successful, while also thinking about how to remove that person if necessary.”
Of course, the qualities to succeed as CEO or NED are entirely different. Nevertheless, there is always a bedding-in period which you have to set aside for yourself as you come to terms with a new position. Bernard says: “Don’t try too hard to make an impression in the early days... there’s a tendency for people on their first non-executive directorships to think that you have to sit in the room and impress people. Well, you don’t.”

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