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The Non Executive Catch 22

Evolving from a full-time career as an executive to a portfolio career of non-executive work can be frustrating. With a lifetime of senior business experience it feels like it should be easy to find a seat on the board of a business that will benefit from your knowledge, experience and expertise. However, to be in the running for a non-executive directorship, you ideally need to have one already, as this demonstrates your capability and understanding of how to add value in the role. It is a classic ‘catch 22’ situation. To break out of this, here are a few basic steps you can take.

Start planning early. Transitioning from a full-on executive career to a non-executive portfolio takes time and arriving at the door of the headhunter a month before you leave your executive post is too late.  A planning horizon of at least 12 -18 months before you move out of your executive role will give you time to work out what might suit you, and spread the message to those in your network who could help find your first position. During this period, it is important to demonstrate your commitment by involving yourself in something other than your immediate business.  If you have never developed any interests outside of your executive responsibilities, it can be hard to persuade a nominations committee that you now intend to take a wider view. For example, taking a trusteeship on a charity board, or with an arts organisation perhaps, even though it is not a fully-fledged non-executive role, will provide you with some basic skills, a track record, and act as a ‘bridge’ out of your executive career.

Be very clear about what you can offer. Someone who says that their experience would be attractive to any business actually makes it harder for their potential to be recognised. This is because non-executive briefs have become more specific as businesses have become risk averse during the downturn.  Highlighting areas of valuable knowledge can help overcome your lack of track record – for example, experience of family businesses, a history of working with joint ventures and start-ups, international experience within particular geographies, working within regulated sectors, or success in business turnarounds – these are hot buttons for different organisations looking to add weight to their boards.

Network and build your profile. For many people this can be one of the most difficult aspects of finding non-executive positions, but it is also one of the most important. You need to make people aware of your plans so that you are front of mind when they are asked for recommendations.  Who should you tell? Anyone who might be in a position to assist you, whether it is a headhunter, a chairman of a business, a non-executive, or a professional adviser.  It is not necessary to present a detailed personal plan, just rehearse a few words that you feel comfortable dropping into the conversation outlining your intentions, asking that they bear it in mind. You might also ask their advice on who else they think you should speak to.  Make sure also that you have your CV prepared and ready to fire off – it is the first thing that people will ask for, and the act of preparing it also serves as a catalyst in helping focus your thoughts on what you can offer, and would be interested in.

Don’t be too ambitious in the early days. When setting out on the non-executive road, some people target a seat on the board of a high profile plc. Without experience or an extremely high personal profile, this can be hard to achieve. Ask yourself honestly:  “If I was a member of their nominations committee, would I hire me into the position?”   Also bear in mind that if your first appointment does not go well, the damage to your reputation can take a long time to heal and, for a non-executive director, reputation is everything.  Success can often be surer, more safely managed and enjoyable by taking a more modest position in the early days, with a business you understand, that will allow you develop your capability in a more familiar environment, equipping you with a track record and skills for the big opportunities in the future.

Make sure you understand what it means to be a non-executive and speak the language. When candidates are considered for non-executive roles, a demonstrable understanding of the nuances of the role is as important as anything written in the CV.  The ability to act as a ‘critical friend’ to the executive team is an often-used description and it is vital to ensure that the interviewing committee feels you understand this.  Danger signals for them would be a sense that someone is too strident, too passive, too operational or, perhaps has a tendency to interfere. To understand the key attributes and behaviours that characterise good non-executive directors, take the time to meet and network with those whom you know, respect and regard as successful. A number of professional services firms, including Wickland Westcott, run non-executive networks - consider joining one of these to increase your profile and contacts.

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