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Five tips for developing a NED portfolio

Written by: Jes Ladva is a partner at Odgers Interim and Odgers Connect
Published on: 22 Oct 2020

At a time of great change, uncertainty and challenge, the work of local authority chief executives, directors and staff has been delivered with ingenuity, commitment, resilience, care and sensitivity.

The leadership skills inherent in local government have been magnificently highlighted in the run-up, during and throughout this pandemic. Leaders have been required to advise, support, challenge, problem solve, govern and enable – a range of capabilities showing parallels to those needed for chairs and non-executive directors (NEDs).

This comes at a time where we have seen a number of chief executives and executive directors announce their ‘retirements’ while simultaneously continuing to support the local authority. With plenty still to offer and a keenness to be stimulated and add value, retirement is quite the opposite!

I thought it therefore timely to offer some suggestions for those considering a transition into a NED/chair portfolio. The following suggestions are based on recent leadership events we have held with respected government leaders who have transitioned from high profile executive roles to an NED portfolio. They provided a fascinating insight into leadership and the skills and attributes necessary for the role, as well as how those who are currently chief executives can successfully transition to the non-executive director position.

Whether you are considering becoming a NED or are interviewing for a role, here are the five things you ought to know:

1. Ensure your values match those of the organisation

You need to take the values of the organisation into as much consideration as the role itself. Being a NED is about diplomacy and the ability to use emotional intelligence to work with and challenge others. This is going to be that much harder if you’re working alongside individuals who don’t share the same mindset and aspirations as you. 

With this in mind, you should be clear about whether you are pursuing the NED role for commercial reasons or are in it for the greater good. Whatever your answer is, it needs to coincide with the culture and values of the organisation you’re thinking of joining.

2. Don’t manage the staff

The vast majority of NEDs come from chief executive stock, a hands-on position that requires a central presence at the helm of a company. However, a NED needs to be more of a mentor. It means taking a step back and leaving the day-to-day running of the company to the directors – they should be the ones leading the organisation whereas your role is to provide guidance and to ensure that they’re on the right course.

If you’re joining a company that is in an industry you’ve not been exposed to before, you need to start by standing back and taking it all in. Listen to the experts and those around you in order to build up your knowledge. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be in a position to start offering advice.

3. Reinvention – Come equipped with the right skillset

In this response and reinvention world we are in, more of the same will simply not do. The wisdom, challenge and ‘helicopter view’ has perhaps never been as important as now. Boards want someone who they can confidently turn to for expert advice and can rely on in a time of crisis. If you have experience of genuine transformation, mergers and acquisitions, and can prove you have turned around an organisation, you will be an attractive candidate. Auditing, budgetary reviewing and balance sheet responsibilities are other sought-after skills, and you will also be expected to embrace digital transformation beyond the ‘low lying fruit’.

Having a mix of commercial and public sector knowledge is hugely beneficial, especially if you’re joining a corporate board from the public sector; your ability to understand and translate what the government and regulators are saying will be invaluable. When it comes to interviewing, you should talk about the size of budgets you have looked after and the number of people you have recruited and managed.

4. Plan for a sporadic workload  

A non-executive role might be advertised for three days a month but in reality, you could be working intensely for 10 days of one month and then none at all for the following three months. In such a role you’re expected to be ‘on call’ whenever you’re needed. There’s little you can do about this other than go into the role with the knowledge that this is often the nature of the beast.

5. The relationship with the chief executives 

As a NED, you’re there to mentor and guide those on the board. However, you’re also there to hold them to account, scrutinise the management’s performance and ensure agreed objectives are being met. The role is set not too close but not too distant from the chief executive, but the sooner an effective relationship is established, the better.

The importance of your relationship with the chief executive cannot be underestimated, particularly at a time where boards have to work on a three to six-month planning cycle in an uncertain political and economic environment. You need to be able to support the chief executive in setting strategic direction for the long-term as well as be agile in adapting to fast moving circumstances. 

Jes Ladva is a partner at Odgers Interim and Odgers Connect

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