How to succeed as a non-executive director

For any aspiring HR director, securing a position as a non-executive director will greatly improve your chances of stepping up to a senior board-level position such as chief executive or managing director.

Time served as a non-exec communicates that you have wider vision, strategic ability and broader management capability than is perhaps associated with the normal functional role.

Becoming a non-exec also represents a major opportunity for personal and professional development, allowing you to broaden your skills and experience by throwing up fresh challenges that your regular role wouldn’t bring.

There is immense scope for transfer of knowledge that can be put to use back in your own organisation.

And if you currently work for a smaller company, taking a non-exec position will provide additional leverage when applying for HR director roles at much larger organisations.

Securing that first position can be tricky and may come through networking or personal contacts, but there are steps you can take to increase your chances of finding – and succeeding – in such a role.

Where do I start?

Learn more about what the role entails by talking to other non-execs and discovering how they got their first break.

Step up your personal and professional networking activity and make known your aspirations to become a non-exec. The public sector can be a better bet than the private sector to look for opportunities as organisations there are obliged to advertise such positions.

Don’t be too ambitious

Avoid being too ambitious and look for a role with an organisation where you know you can add value and which will also let you build your experience and ease yourself into the position of non-exec. A small or medium-sized organisation could be a good starting point.

Comprehensively research the organisation you are targeting and be aware of the main challenges it faces. Consider what you will be able to contribute and how your skills and experience are relevant to the company’s aims.

Chris Bones, principal of Henley Management College, who sits on the Board of Government Skills and is a non-exec for the Shadow Levy Board UK, says this thinking should extend beyond your professional realm.

“Think about other experiences in your life that are not work-related, and the different perspective they can bring,” he says.

Making the right choice

Most organisations will have a formal process for recruiting, sometimes through a nomination committee, so expect the selection process to be rigorous. And if a company does want to bring you in, don’t be seduced by the prestige or ‘sexiness’ of a particular role – you need to be convinced about the organisation’s corporate strategy and feel comfortable with the executive directors. The right chemistry between board members is just as important as you having the right experience.

What skills do I need?

The best non-execs are those with strong influencing skills, good powers of judgement, insight and vision, and good listening skills. Bear in mind that you may only be called upon to help provide input into a handful of decisions a year, and these aptitudes are important in ensuring you make an impact.

It is also important to be committed and enthusiastic about the business and to inspire confidence. Showing that you are level-headed will help boost your credibility and respect.

Build effective relationships

Once on board, be mindful that you are not there to run the business or to find fault, but to add value by applying your skills and experience to situations and to give a different perspective. That doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge decisions, especially if you are given a governance role, says Bones. “Make sure you understand your responsibilities and don’t be afraid to stand up for your rights,” he says.

He adds that the two key factors in building a successful relationship with the board are to keep in touch with fellow non-execs between meetings, and to immerse yourself in the business in the early days.

If you only do 5 things

  1. Broaden your contact base and broadcast your intentions.

  2. Know your stuff about the organisation and its objectives.

  3. Be satisfied about the company’s strategy when taking on a role.

  4. Fully understand your responsibilities.

  5. Be prepared to challenge decisions and ask tough questions.

For more information


Tolley’s Non-executive Director’s Handbook
Glynis D Morris and Patrick Dunne, Elsevier Science and Technology, £41.99, ISBN 0754517594

A Practical Guide to Corporate Governance
Richard Smerdon, Sweet & Maxwell, £145, ISBN 0421953101

Expert’s view: succeeding as a non-executive director Chris Bones, principal, Henley Management College

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a non-exec?

Knowing that you have helped the organisation take difficult decisions effectively is always rewarding. Personally, I enjoy the educational aspects of the role, working with people from other sectors and industries where I would normally have little contact.

What are the do’s and don’ts?

I would say the same do’s and don’ts of any appointment. Do prepare, and do answer the questions that are put to you in a straightforward and clear way. Acknowledge where you don’t have the experience as much as where you do, and remember you’re interviewing them as well as them interviewing you. Don’t oversell yourself or your experience.

What difference, if any, has the Higgs review made to your approach or views of being a non-exec?

As both my appointments are in the public sector where there have been clear rules for a long time, not much difference. But in my role as CEO Higgs has had a significant impact, even in the voluntary sector where I operate. For example, the introduction of effectiveness reviews, the requirement to provide far more detailed information and the fact that non-execs have very clear liabilities as well as opportunities.

Many of the latest changes to governance are starting to act as a disincentive, and policymakers should start to think seriously about the impact of new initiatives.

What are your three top tips?

  1. Think about the liabilities as well as the opportunities.

  2. Ask lots of questions before forming opinions.

  3. Make sure you get feedback from the chairman as well as the CEO to make sure you’re doing what they want.

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