Would you accept a role as a non-executive director that required you to work for 120 to 140 days a year? Thought not. And yet one of the UK’s major financial institutions is apparently scouring CVs and conducting interviews in the hope that somebody will make that kind of commitment. It’s another example of the ever-increasing demands put on independent directors today.
Those aspiring to a seat on the board need to be careful what they wish for. While 140 days a year is obviously extreme, the time NEDs are required to commit is generally creeping up from the standard of 18 to 25 days a year, as is the depth of insight they’re expected to bring into the business.
This is testing the notion of what it means to be independent. For David Dumeresque, Partner at executive search firm Tyzack Partners, there is a real danger that, with all the talk of providing digital expertise, sharing global know-how and contributing to boardroom debate by drawing on other areas of operational experience, the real purpose of the position is being forgotten.
“[People are] beginning to confuse the role of the non-executive and conflate it with that of an advisor,” he explains. “The non-exec is focused on governance: it’s about holding the board to account, not second-guessing them or being appointed because of specific knowledge gained in an executive environment…
“One of the things that I hear quite regularly from chief execs is that non-execs are interfering in their work.”
There needs to be balance. Gerry Brown, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of private equity firm Novaquest Capital Management, argues that an independent director can only properly fulfil their duties by being strategic. This means actively contributing to the debate on questions of operational excellence, especially in areas such as risk management.
Risk is an area where independent directors are expected to check that the right procedures and policies are in place, but for Gerry this doesn’t go far enough. He recalls when he sat on the board of a global construction business and it was felt safety improvements needed to be made.
“We decided we would have a health and safety sub-committee and it would be led by one of the board members who was very experienced,” he says. “We then developed a strategy and policy about strengthening the whole area of risk prevention and awareness throughout our subsidiaries around the world.”
Rather than solely looking at compliance and adopting a box-ticking approach, the NEDs went further than was necessary, pushing the executives to improve the business. Ultimately, this is what executives should seek from their independent directors.
Given the onerous liabilities and expectations, it’s more important than ever for those considering the transition to NED to understand the demands of the job. Ruth Cairnie, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Non-executive Director of Keller Group, ABF and Rolls-Royce, says: “You really need to think through why you want to do it and what you want to get out of it. In my experience, unless you’re clear about this then you’re probably not going to succeed...
“Linked to that, it’s important to try and understand what boards do. So, what is the role of a NED? There are lots of things you can do to find this out… I’ve found it helpful to really understand what I could contribute.”
Ian Stuart, Chairman of manufacturing concern Aspen Pumps, says: “Go and talk to some people who are NEDs or [those] who want to employ NEDs. So, for instance, I’m in private equity and I think it would be critical to talk to people who are either existing NEDs in private equity or private equity sponsors...
“You should understand what is truly involved. You also need to know what you’re bringing to it; what is your prime selling point?”
If an opportunity does arise, don’t be reticent about undertaking some thorough due diligence. “Talk to the brokers, nomads, accountants and investment bankers and as many other members of the board as you can,” says David. “I would consider it a massive red flag if you’re not allowed to.”
Vanda Murray, Criticaleye Board Mentor, Senior Independent Director at manufacturing company Fenner and recently appointed Non-executive Director at FTSE 100 distribution and outsourcing group Bunzl, comments: “You need to believe you can make a valuable contribution to that company. Be sure that it’s the right board for you, not just in terms of the mix of skills around the board table, but in terms of culture…
“If the board have done their job properly, they’ll know what skills they’re looking for and you can have a conversation around those skills. Then… you will have to assess to what degree you’re the right fit for that board culturally. Does this group of people share the values that I have? Will we be able to work together as a team?”
Increasingly, it makes sense to take on a not-for-profit or charity role before looking to step up to a public company or private equity board position. It provides a platform to gain experience about how a board is run, governance procedures and the different ways to express a point of view as a non-executive in the boardroom.
“There are all kinds of organisations with good corporate governance regimes that can teach you the basics of being a NED,” says Vanda. “That will make it so much easier when moving into a large private, private equity-backed or a quoted company board.”
It underlines the need to be fully prepared so that you, as a representative of shareholders, know what you should be doing. “The reality is that you are there as an influencer,” says Ruth. “You don’t have direct authority, and you shouldn’t be trying to tell the executives what to do. You’re there to provide the input, the stimulus and the challenge to help them formulate their views.
“Things do happen more slowly, but then the satisfaction comes over a period of time, when you see the executives really starting to embrace some of… your ideas.”
The competition for independent director roles remains fierce. To succeed, you will need to educate yourself, expand your network and then think carefully about what organisation will be right for you, especially if you're being asked to work for a third of the year.
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