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The keys to success for first timers

Written by: Jonathan Swain leads the Board Practice at The McLean Partnership
Published on: 4 Apr 2019

For many senior people working in local, devolved government or the broader public sector taking on that first non-executive position can seem a daunting prospect. The image of a stuffy and all male network of already connected individuals is reflected in reality in some sectors. “The face of leadership in this country is still very male and very white” found Sir Philip Hampton, chair of the Hampton-Alexander Review into gender balance in FTSE companies.

The public sector picture shows the trends are going in the right direction, however, with half of new appointments being female, up from a third five years with around one in three chairs being women. However, the situation is patchier for ethnic minorities with only one in ten NED roles going to BAME candidates and only 4 percent of chairs being from ethnic minorities. The public sector has led the way, for example, by reducing the in-built biases in application process such as forms requiring an off-putting list of specifications reflecting longstanding experience and focussing more on ability and also ensuring diverse interview panels. Many organisations like The McLean Partnership offer coaching and advice on navigating what can appear to be unchartered waters for aspiring NEDs.

Getting your first board position can be tough enough but once the role is secured a new set of challenges can present themselves. The non-executive role is very different to an executive one. After a long, intense executive career it is important to understand the precise shift in gear needed. This is even more the case for those doing a NED role alongside an executive job. 

Here are some of the most useful pointers for new board members:

 1. The amount of information in a board pack can appear overwhelming at first

 Board packs can run to the size of the collective works of James Joyce…and can seem almost as baffling. As an executive you have an in-depth knowledge of all the detail in your brief and the background on it. You need to move away from that mind-set as a non-executive. When you join a board, do take the time to assimilate the information you are given but, crucially, to understand why it is being presented to the board. The reason may not be immediately obvious to a new board member. The essential skill for a non-executive is to keep a strategic overview across a volume of detail. Being clear on the overall aim of your role helps with this – what are you there to contribute?

2. Resist jumping straight in with your analysis

A board operates on a collegiate basis rather than along a hierarchy. This is a big shift from most executive work. The way you operate needs to change accordingly. Co-operating and building consensus with NED colleagues is vital to maximising your impact. It is also important to consider carefully where you make your contributions. Most NEDs are hired for their expertise on a specific area or topic. However, they should also bring cross-cutting insights on more general organisational or strategic matters. You will need to learn to strike a balance between simply banging one “drum” and exercising roaming rights across agendas.

 3. It’s a new set of relationships and pattern of meetings

Being a NED can feel lonely at times. You don’t have the same number of natural allies as you may across an executive structure and you will see your fellow board members infrequently. As a result, it is important to take the time to understand the organisation’s DNA and where and how you fit in. This should include taking up as many of the informal opportunities to engage as possible – go to the dinners, accept the invites to the organisation’s events and frontline visits as well as arranging the odd casual coffee or lunch.

Do look on other board members as a resource to learn from, especially as a new non-executive. Many will have several years’ experience of governance, which combined gives you decades to draw on. However, don’t be afraid to challenge when you feel it is appropriate. That is why you’ve been brought in. Unlike an executive role where you represent your department or organisation, you are there as “you”. The trick is learning to put forward your opinions whilst maintaining positive personal relationships. 

Finally…..remember why you wanted the role. Non-executive work can be immensely rewarding and intellectually stimulating. You are (hopefully) in a position to uniquely help an organisation you are interested in and have an affinity with. Enjoy it!

Jonathan Swain leads the Board Practice at The McLean Partnership. He is passionate about bringing diversity of thought into the boardroom so frequently works with first-time non-executives.

Jonath Swain