The role of the modern-day Non-Executive Director is complex and often requires a steeper learning curve than is anticipated. Whether you become a NED in your 30s or your 60s, being an effective Non-Executive Director takes a lot of hard work, self-motivation, resilience and self-development but it can be a highly rewarding career path.
Here are some top tips on how to progress your career as a Non-Executive Director.
Being a successful NED requires a different set of skills and approach than executive level roles and you need to build your experience in order to move up through the boardroom ranks. As a first-time Non-Executive Director you have to retrain yourself to be hands off. The role requires you to have your ‘nose in, fingers out’ meaning your responsibility is to know what’s going on, to understand risks, trends, issues, and wins but to stay out of the day-to-day operational management of the business. This switch from hands-on leader to backseat driver can be a bigger shift of gears than executives expect.
NED careers come in all manner of shapes and sizes! While some people will become a NED and stay in that role, others take on sub-committee Chair roles and then Chair the board within a few years. Some will undertake unpaid board roles before getting their first paid board role, and others go straight to paid roles. There is no “right” approach. It’s important that any board role you take on is one that you are committed to and will serve wholeheartedly. Never consider taking on a role purely as a springboard to reach other roles. There is a lot of competition out there so don’t expect everything to fall into your lap.
Ask for feedback
We have spoken with a lot of Non-Execs that have experienced informal appraisals resulting in little to no constructive feedback on their performance. This can be frustrating as it’s hard to know whether or not you are meeting expectations, what you are doing well and which areas you need to improve. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. It is important that you ask for more challenging feedback and be clear about what you need from that developmental environment. This could be in the form of regular one-to-ones with your peers or Chair to review your performance and help you to set clear objectives and goals. We all have things we need to work on so remember that constructive criticism is not a personal attack but an opportunity to improve and grow.
In addition to asking others for feedback, you should also get into a regular habit of assessing your own performance. Ask yourself what went well, what didn’t go well and what would you do differently next time after each board meeting. Again, set yourself some targets and add a deadline to put yourself under pressure. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will help you to develop your skills and raise your game as a Non-Exec.
As a Non-Executive Director, you are legally responsible for the actions of the entire board so it’s important that you understand the decisions being made in the boardroom. It is your job to be curious – to ask questions and to solve problems. If something isn’t clear in the meeting pack, or you don’t understand why a process is done in a certain way, then don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes, a simple question of ‘why’ can spark an important debate, highlighting problems in the business that haven’t been discussed before. This is the best case scenario of course, with the worst case being that you learn something new. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.
If there are acronyms being used in the boardroom that you haven’t come across before or a topic being discussed that is outside of your remit, don’t rely solely on the Non-Execs around the table that do have that specialist knowledge to make the right decision. Instead, make a note of what you don’t know and commit yourself to learning about it.
Outside of the boardroom, do everything you can to learn about the culture of a company. Speaking with employees holding different roles within the business and checking out reviews on Glassdoor are great ways of doing this. The culture of a company affects everything from performance to how a company is perceived, so it’s an important step not to skip as a Non-Executive Director.
Take charge of your learning
There is a huge amount to learn within the Non-Executive community and you’ve got to do everything you can to stay on top of that. Continued professional development is critical for NEDs that are continually evolving, adapting and assimilating knowledge to ensure they are as impactful as they can be for their company and effective at executing their director duties. “It feels to me like there is a vast amount of information that as a NED you need to stay across,” agrees Monica Chadha, an experienced board advisor with over 25 years’ experience in the creative industries. “You must be deliberate and intentional about your learning,” she adds.
So, how do you access the training you need? One way could be to raise it with your company. “In your appraisal, be really clear about your training needs,” says Chadha. It’s a great time to find out whether the sector offers any specific training about a topic you are keen to swot up on. You may even get it funded by the organisation so it’s definitely worth discussing.
Learning can take many forms including courses, workshops, events, webinars and online groups like Dynamic Boards NED Community. You can also benefit greatly from peer-to-peer learning by reaching out to your fellow board members and wider professional network when you find yourself experiencing a particular problem.
Monica Chadha spoke to Dynamic Board’s CEO, Sarah Pierman, about her reflections on Non-Executive Director Progression. Watch the full video below:
Let go of self-limiting beliefs
As a Non-Exec, it is common to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, which can hold you back from achieving your full potential. The truth is that you cannot perform effectively if you are stuck in a cycle of constant anxiety – feeling like you don’t know what you are doing, questioning the value you bring to the role, believing that others are more qualified than you are and that you don’t deserve your place in the boardroom. You are the only person that can re-frame your thinking and change these beliefs. You need to start by being kind to yourself and acknowledge both your professional and personal achievements and the sacrifices you have made to get you to this point in time. Having self-awareness of your thoughts, feelings and beliefs and taking decisive action to make positive changes will allow you to clear any mental blocks that are stopping you from progressing professionally.
Don’t underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence
Lacking critical emotional skills can lead to workplace conflict, which is a bigger risk in a boardroom setting due to the limited time that you have together as a NED team. Being combative, having no tact and poor delivery of information can create a negative energy, ruffle feathers and make you stand out for all the wrong reasons.
In contrast, having a high level of emotional intelligence allows Non-Executive Directors to truly understand different perspectives and offer a more balanced, diplomatic view that takes everyone’s needs into account. People will remember how you conduct yourself, how you treat them and how you make them feel. Even if you raise good points, focusing on how that message lands is important because you’re dealing with people and not robots.
Being able to effectively communicate and collaborate with your board is essential to achieving results. It’s a team sport. Those with an increased emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) are more likely to be well regarded among their peers and the type of person that people want to work with. This can put you in good stead as you move through your career as a Non-Exec.
Non-Executive Directors hold the most important decision-making roles in UK organisations. The best Non-Executive Directors are constantly looking for ways to develop their skills and improve their knowledge. There is no guide book to cover all eventualities in the boardroom and you will inevitably face new challenges that require time and creative thinking to navigate. Learning from these experiences will help you progress as a Non-Executive Director and become a more effective and thoughtful board member.
Are you looking for Non-Exec roles?
We list c.100 paid NED board roles each month from right across the UK and provide access to free blogs and YouTube videos to encourage and inspire NEDs. It’s free for candidates to view our roles. You can sign up to view them here.
Join the NED community
Are you on a UK board in a Non-Exec capacity? If so, sign up for our free NED Community and hear from experts in the industry and connect with other Non-Execs across the UK. If you want to become a more thoughtful and effective board member, register here.
Is your board looking to recruit a NED or Chair?
We can help advertise a role to candidates who will bring the skills, experience and perspectives you need on your board. We advertise over 1000 Non-Exec board roles a year from across the UK. You can see information on our advertising options here and you can get in touch with the Dynamic Boards team at email@example.com