12 Jun How to… become a NED – in a way that is right for you
Blog by Frances Morris-Jones, PfW Ambassador and Interim Chair, Oil and Gas Authority
You’ve read about the need for diversity on boards, you’ve seen the targets. You may be wondering, ‘shall I give it a go?’ But how do you go about it? And how do you decide what role is right – for you? Frances Morris-Jones, who has just completed a year as Interim Chair of the Oil and Gas Authority and holds a number of board positions, shares her advice on becoming a Non-Executive Director.
Earlier this year, for POWERful Women, I hosted a small group of women aspiring to be Non Executive Directors (NEDs). We talked about their different situations and what they were considering and why, and I shared practical advice on how to get going.
Is it right for me?
The first thing to think through is why the idea of a NED role appeals: what your particular motivation is. At the table there were women looking to broaden their experience outside their executive role, to see how boards function, and perhaps to be seen within their own company as board material. Others were looking to try something completely new in an unrelated sector, for variety and interest and also to make a difference. Personal circumstances are important.
When I took on my first NED role with DNV (now DNV GL) alongside an executive position, it was out of curiosity about how boards worked, and I loved it. I was warned to avoid ‘going portfolio’ too early as it might be difficult to return to executive work later. In the end fate took a hand – a domestic crisis meant a year-long career break and then the need for more flexibility than my previous full -time executive roles had allowed. And so I launched into a NED portfolio career, starting with experiences most different from what I had done before. Firstly in the charity sector with a cause I feel passionately about – Anti-Slavery International – and then as an External Governor at the University of Portsmouth. I currently also hold positions at Protect and BSI. My most recent role on the board of the Oil and Gas Authority draws on my executive experience more directly than the others but from a very different perspective.
What is involved?
There are a vast range of opportunities in the NED world. The private sector, public bodies, and charities all offer very different experiences and challenges – and of course widely different pay! The nice thing about NED roles is that, by virtue of being part-time, they are more flexible. But they do represent a regular commitment and so several together can add up to a full-time job.
Director obligations and liabilities have grown considerably as societal expectations have changed – from climate change to diversity and inclusion, from responsibility for risk management to executive pay. On top of this, social media now demands instant responses. So to perform properly requires preparation and training to keep up with changes in corporate governance. Conferences and interaction with stakeholders (now wider than just immediate shareholders and interested parties) are also seldom included in the advertised time requirement. All in all, the time commitment is almost always understated by at least 50%!
But the experience can be extremely rewarding: getting to know different sectors and new people, learning new skills and achieving a degree of variety, would be hard to do otherwise. It is also a way of contributing your hard-won expertise to a range of new challenges – personal or professional skills that you take for granted in yourself can be just what your new board needs, which can be very gratifying. And in my experience, compared to the visibly competitive executive world, the NED world can feel much more collegiate and collaborative. An effective board is one where there is less room for ego.
Entering the NED world
As with any new job, openings can come from colleagues or through recruitment consultants; networks like POWERful Women can be helpful too. I had been head-hunted for my first NED role, but my first success when searching for positions came through Women on Boards, which I strongly recommend for their friendly network, targeted advice (on tailoring your CV, for example) and a listing of vacancies browsable in one place. I became clearer about what I wanted, made my choices directly, and interviewed better as I went along. I also received help with my CV from former colleagues and friends and there’s nothing like talking through your ideas and aspirations with a safe, friendly and forgiving audience!
Certainly, we need more women on boards in the UK: women, at less than 27% on average, are still well below their demographic share. Gender is of course not the only measure of diversity and perhaps what we need most is cognitive diversity – of thought and approach. But gender diversity is easier to measure and if we cannot manage that, I at least am less confident that we are succeeding in more challenging goals. Inclusion is the ultimate goal – we need to work on bringing in the diverse populations of talent into the mix. We know from research that this is good for business outcomes, we know it makes for a better boardroom culture, and I suggest it can be very good for us as individuals.
So, I encourage you to consider NED roles, and I’d like to offer some tips:
- If you are new to the NED world, do your homework: it is important you understand the governance framework and the duties of a director; it is also important that you have at least a basic understanding of accounts and risk management; there are many excellent courses that will provide you with the essentials.
- Pick an activity or sector that excites you, not just something that ticks the box: a NED needs to be driven by curiosity to want to know more than you will find in the board papers, and if you have a passion for the subject, this will be fun, whereas if you don’t it will just be a chore.
- Never forget that your main role as a NED is to be independent and to ask the searching, difficult and challenging questions on behalf of shareholders and stakeholders – and if you don’t, there’s a risk no-one will until it’s too late.
For me, non-executive work has provided a new lease of career life: infinitely varied, certainly demanding and ultimately very fulfilling. Good luck, and do note that POWERful Women offers a mentoring scheme as well as a terrific team if you would like to discuss your plans.