profileArticle Author


John Fortescue

John Fortescue



London Office
Tel: +44 207 224 2071


Send John An Email

view allPrevious Articles

Developing leaders Strengthening Leadership Capability by Rachel Gascoigne
Maximise Opportunities How to Maximise the Chance of a Successful Hire by Adam Hillier

Candidate Guide

Provides information on different selection methods that you may encounter in your job search. Read The Candidate Guide

exploreWalk With...


Learn more about our friends in South Africa

Thought Leadership


Becoming an NED - Look Before You Leap

Non-executive directorships are often seen as a natural step for those seeking to build a portfolio of career interests later in life.  Non-executive work can certainly be satisfying and fulfilling, yet the nature of the role means that it is not always easy to fully understand the operation and risks associated with the business and, when things go wrong, non- executive directors are increasingly in the firing line. To decide if it is right for you, consider the following 7 factors:

  1. Why do you want to be an NED?  Surprisingly few executives ask themselves this question. Ensure it is something you really want to do, rather than something that you feel you should do (eg because your peers are doing it). Review your plans for the future; how much time do you wish to give to this role?  If not thought-through you risk taking on too much and moving into a phase that is even busier than your executive career.  Do not plan on an NED role as a direct financial replacement for your salaried career, as building a portfolio specifically to maintain income can compromise your independence of thought, particularly if you become reliant on the fees.
  2. Are you really suited to the role?   Although non-executive directors establish working relationships with the executive team they are not full members of that team and must maintain a distance.  This requirement for independence can make it an isolated existence, acting as a ‘critical friend’ on the board, challenging the executives when appropriate, and ensuring that relevant checks and balances are in place.  This requires the confidence and strength of character to stand by your principles and offer constructive challenge, even if it is unpopular and you are a lone voice.  In very difficult circumstances, for example where there is a major issue over a point of law or regulation, you may even be in a position where you have to consider resignation.
  3. Research the responsibilities and risks.   Non-executives carry a considerable burden of financial and legal duties.  Ensure you understand what these are, be clear that you are willing to take them on and that the company has the appropriate level of insurance in place.  As an enlighted non-executive director, you cannot merely read the papers and turn up for the board meetings. Every business has issues and risk elements to it.  You cannot expect to sit in the board room and get all the answers there – it is important to invest time, particularly in the early days, to get out and about, visit the senior management team, to build your confidence that the right things are happening on the ground.
  4. Understand what sort of organisation would suit you best.  Non-executive roles can be found across the spectrum of business activity and public life, ranging from large, listed corporates through mid-range plcs, large private companies, private equity, entrepreneurial and start-up businesses and public/private bodies.  The nature of the role depends on the environment; Plc roles typically come nearest to a ‘pure’ non-executive position, focused principally on governance.  At the other end of the spectrum, a non-executive director in a small business may have more involvement, almost to the extent of being a part-time executive.  Clearly, if you enjoy contributing and becoming involved in operational matters, it may be sensible to gravitate towards smaller businesses.  Although the principal responsibilities of non-executives should always be the same, the dividing line line between the executive and non-executive is slightly different in every organisation and needs to be understood before taking on the appointment.
  5. Plan ahead.   Waiting until the last days of your executive career is often too late, as finding your first non-executive role will not be easy, particularly if you have previously demonstrated little interest in organisations outside of your immediate executive responsibilities.  You should aim to initiate some early activity perhaps two years ahead of your move out of an executive position.  Don’t be too ambitious in your choice of first role; make sure it is in a field you are familiar with and where the risks are therefore more understandable.  If coming from the private sector it may be easier to begin with a public sector organisation or charity where private sector commercial skills are always welcome.  This will provide you with a track record and act as a solid bridge into a higher profile, commercial role at a later date.
  6. Don’t just take the first thing that comes along. As a non-executive, your biggest asset is your reputation and, if your first appointment does not go well, it will make it very difficult to find another one.  Ensure that you understand the company’s strategy and risk profile and apply extensive due diligence.  Speak to existing non-executive and executive directors in the business, consult their professional advisors and analyse your own experience and skills to make sure that they complement those of others on the board.  Above all, how do you feel about the people on the board – is the chemistry likely to be good or do you sense divisions and difficulties between the directors which could make for regular confrontation and uncomfortable board meetings? Will you relish this, or rather avoid it?
  7. Invest time and effort in finding the right role.  There is considerable competition for non-executive roles between aspiring non-executive directors looking for their first role and experienced portfolio directors replacing directorships when they rotate off one of their boards.  Although some of this is attributable to supply and demand, there has been a shift in NED recruitment towards greater specificity in role specifications - for example, a demand for certain aspects of market sector expertise or geographical experience.  Another trend is the reduced visibility of opportunities, with search (headhunting) and networking playing a much more pivotal role in the process than traditional advertising.  Personal networking therefore needs to be high on your list of activities, whether you enjoy it or not.  Develop the habit of regularly mentioning your plans to your business contacts and professional advisers and help them to understand your unique skills and experiences, and most critically your value-add.

Above all, remember that this should be a time when you have the ability to make choices that are enjoyable and fit with your interests and values. Talk to people you know and trust, ask them their views and how they would see this working for you to ensure that the organisation you join benefits fully from your expertise and you, in turn, contribute meaningfully to the leadership and strategic agenda.

Share This Thought Leadership Article

Enter the letters as they are shown in the image