Non-executive directors rarely make headlines. When a business is performing well, it’s the executive team who gratefully accept the plaudits. When things go badly it the same executives standing in the firing line. Meanwhile the contribution of the company’s non-executives is documented only in the boardroom minutes.
And yet non-executive directors play a hugely important, if unsung, role in driving the success of a business. In a small or medium-sized company built on the ability of a founder to strike deals and win contracts, a battle-scarred non-executive director working one or two days a month often brings years’ of boardroom experience to enable the business to avoid the pitfalls of rapid expansion. In the more rarefied environment of the FTSE-350, non-executives not only bring valuable insights to the committees, but they also provide an independent perspective to boards that might otherwise be dominated by the towering figure of the chief executive officer.
The route from life as a full time executive to a non-executive is well travelled. Traditionally non-executive roles were seen as a means to transition from full time work to semi-retirement and in many cases that remains the case. However, as entrepreneurial companies seek to widen and deepen their boards by hiring part time specialists and non-executives, there is increasing scope for those with the right background and skill sets to build portfolio careers around non-executive positions.
However it’s not necessarily an easy option. As a full time director with an organisation you can be sure your colleagues know who you are and are well aware of what you have achieved. Once outside that comfort zone, you enter a world where the ability to market yourself pro-actively is a pre-requisite for success.
The initial hurdle is securing that first non-executive appointment. Arguably the most painless way of achieving this is to take on a non-executive position while still in a full time role. For instance, Peter Williams took on his first non-executive appointment when he was still on the Selfridges executive team. Starting as CFO before becoming CEO he worked for the company during a period of transition that saw it reposition itself as one of the world’s leading department stores. Against this backdrop, a non-executive position might be seen as a distraction but as Williams sees it his time on the Capital Radio board (where he chaired the audit committee) was positive for all the parties concerned.
“I think that taking on a non-executive role while also in a full time position can be a very good thing,” Williams says. “It gives you a different perspective and what you learn as a non-executive can feed into the full-time work that you’re doing.”
This kind of extracurricular role also adds weight to your CV when the time comes to build a portfolio of non-executive positions. Incidentially, Williams was parachuted in as interim chairman of embattled outdoor retailers Blacks in August to secure refinancing for the business and "steadying the ship" thanks to his breadth of experience.
Finding a first non-executive role without the comfort blanket of a full-time position can be a more daunting prospect but sometimes luck plays a part. Paul Hinder worked in a number of finance director roles for blue chip companies such as Motorola and Cable and Wireless before quitting corporate life for a management position on a telecoms start-up. That company fell victim to the dot com implosion, and Hinder was considering his employment options when a triple opportunity came through the door.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.