How to Cut It as a Non-Exec

Thursday 29 November 2018
Non-executive positions provide a key opportunity to hone your leadership skills.
Exec meeting

You can deepen your management skills by becoming a non-executive. Here, three expert CMI Companions advise on the skills and behaviours you’ll need.

Bring Skills That Add Value

Boardroom spaces don’t come up often, so the board – and you – will want a really good match. What do you bring by way of skillset or experience that the board is looking for? Find opportunities where you feel confident you can make an outstanding contribution. “Ask yourself: ‘What is my USP?’” advises Susanne Thorning-Lund of Odgers Berndtson. “What is it that you would tell a potential chair in the 20-second lift test?”

Stay Curious

Your non-exec role should be as much about you learning as it is about you sharing your expertise. The role needs to develop your career as a manager.

“If you’re not learning, you’re decaying,” says CMI president and Lloyd’s chairman Bruce Carnegie-Brown. “As a non-executive director as part of a board, you’ve got to continually assess your own performance and the criteria you need to help the company succeed.” In regulated companies especially, an annual analysis of boardroom skills will be written into the codes of governance so that the board’s skills match business need.

It’s Not All About You

A good non-exec is an influencer who enables others to succeed. “You don’t tell; you ask questions,” says Thorning-Lund. Indeed, you might have to ask the same questions repeatedly in board meetings, and management might still not do what you think is obvious. Some non-executives can be too robust, she says, and this can put people’s backs up. “Be careful about how insistent you are.”

“If you’re still focused on developing your own career and want to have two hands on the wheel, then you’re better off remaining a full-time executive,” advises Carnegie-Brown. “But, if you’re interested in helping others succeed and develop, then it can be enormously rewarding.”

Do It When Your Skills Are Still Relevant

Carnegie-Brown became a non-executive while still in an executive role. At the time, he was of a similar age and experience level to the company’s chief executive: “They wanted somebody who could be in more directly relevant space with the chief executive than some of the other non-exec members of the board.”

This scenario is increasingly common, says Gillian Wilmot, founder of Board Mentoring. “Years ago it was almost an honorary position for the great and the good coming to the last stage of their career. That’s fundamentally changed. Today, boards are under more pressure in terms of their governance, strategic and succession-planning obligations.”

So the best time to start looking for a board role may be during your executive life, “not when you’re leaving it, because then your relevance to the market – your currency – starts to decline”, says Wilmot.

The Cultural Bit Will Matter

Look for cultural fit between you and other board members. Thorning-Lund says: “A board does not meet very often, so you’ll want to make an impact quickly. Consider who you are and what defines you.”

Sometimes boards will deliberately look for non-execs who are different – people who, in Wilmot’s words, can be “the grit in the oyster”. If this is you, it can create a tricky dynamic. “While it might be what they need, it’s not going to be a very enjoyable experience if you feel like they don’t want you there,” she says.

Make a Careful Choice

There are three tests to apply before joining a board: are they competent; do you trust them; and do you like them?

The first test may sound basic, but you need to believe the company’s leadership is well qualified, listening, and that they’re balanced and competent to lead that business. If you have any doubts, avoid.

The acid test is the relationship between you and the chair, says Thorning-Lund. “Even if you’re not so sure about one or two of the others, the chair will be the person who runs that board and will set the tone and dynamic.”

And bear in mind that there are significant legal obligations on board members. Your reputation could be at stake if you join the wrong board.

Yes, you can buy insurance for some liabilities, but you can’t be insured against wilful negligence or malfeasance. And, even if you are indemnified – and most quoted-company boards will indemnify their directors against some liabilities – any litigation can be incredibly onerous and divisive, cautions Carnegie-Brown. These issues are magnified many times if you are in a regulated field.

Certain Boards Breed Certain Behaviours

To kick-start your boardroom experience, you might first sit on a local school board, or the board of a charity in your area. These often contain people with a strong business background.

But be aware of the particular challenges with charitable boards, says Wilmot. “With commercial entities it’s very clear what the objectives are, but with a not-for-profit or charity people’s beliefs come into play. And people die for their beliefs! Unfortunately, some charity boards can bring this to life in some really difficult behaviours.”

Boards Are Looking for New Attributes

It’s increasingly important to get people with technology perspectives on company boards, says Carnegie-Brown. And, because the half-life of technology is short, people who are very current on technology can often leapfrog those with more experience. Social media, blockchain, the relationship between consumers and digital technologies – these are areas of specialist knowledge that many boardrooms are looking for.

Most boardrooms are keen to broaden their diversity in all forms, which is opening up opportunities. Wilmot says: “One of the game changers would be more female chairs, or more chairs who don’t come from standard white male backgrounds, because it’s the chair who really does drive change in the organisation, through the CEO.”

Beware Over-boarding

Being an effective non-exec takes time. If you’re already in a full-time role, it’ll mean weekends or evenings.

“It’s a job on top of a job,” says Wilmot. “The board will assess the time it takes, and I always advise people to double it, particularly in the first six to 12 months when you’re learning a new business.”

A final word from Carnegie-Brown: “You need to have some flexibility in your diary because unforeseen things happen all the time. No flexibility means you are effectively ‘over-boarding’, and there is an increasing focus by investors on directors who are deemed to be over-boarding, particularly those who have executive roles as well as non-executive roles.”

This article is drawn from a CMI webinar held in April 2018, featuring CMI president and chairman of Lloyd’s Bruce Carnegie-Brown CCMI; Susanne Thorning-Lund CCMI from Odgers Berndtson; and Gillian Wilmot CCMI from Board Mentoring. To watch the whole webinar, visit To find out more about the ways in which CMI Companions are setting the business agenda, visit And for resources to help you with your researches, visit CMI’s online information hub, ManagementDirect

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