If the pandemic has taught companies anything it’s that tech is not something that you put off and think about ‘later’. The last year has seen organisations go through huge digital transformations, whether planned or otherwise. And for those that aren’t technology-based companies, getting the right board-level advice can not only be hard to find, but the difference between success and failure.
That’s where Non Executive Directorship (NEDs) comes in, particularly Tech-focused NEDs.
Due to its ever-increasing importance, we recently ran a session exploring how the boardroom is currently transforming in terms of diversity, digital and data expertise, and how there has never been a better time for technology leaders to seek a NED role. We were privileged to be joined by three inspirational women technology leaders – Nadine Thomson – Global Chief Technology Officer at MediaCom and NED at VisitEngland, Norma Dove-Edwin – Chief Information Officer at National Grid ESO and NED for Pod Point and housing association Notting Hill Genesis and Lisa Weaver-Lambert – Senior Data and Digital Executive in Private Equity (ex-Accenture), co-host of podcast Private Equity Technology and who serves as a NED on the Board of City College Capital Group, London’s largest higher education group.
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Here’s everything you need to know…
The journey is not straightforward
According to our expert panel, the path to becoming an NED is not an easy one. Nadine spent years as a trustee on charity boards before moving into a paid NED role, where Norma and Lisa both worked closer with executive search firms and recruitment companies that had a non-executive arm. One thing they all agreed on is to first identify organisations that you’re passionate about because being a NED is a lot of work on top of your day job and can take a lot of time – Nadine’s journey – which spanned almost a decade – involved being a trustee for two different charities before becoming a non-executive director. She would however, send a word of caution about this route if you are looking for a paid NED portfolio career, in which case she wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as the path. Having said that, charity boards are very rewarding to be a part of and she would recommend joining one if the Charity interests you, if your objective is to give back or to help further the cause. They are also good for building up confidence to step into a paid NED career, so don’t rule it out completely.
Second is to build out a network, because as Nadine also says: “As technology leaders we tend to network a lot with other technology leaders, which is absolutely fantastic for our executive roles but that can limit you in terms of non-executive roles, so really expand your horizons.”
Lisa says get to know Chairs and CEOs; they are the decision makers. Likewise, Norma advises that word-of-mouth recommendations can be really powerful. Once you start building out your network, opportunities may arise that you may not have heard about before and you might hear about companies looking for NEDs, before they are advertised. Plus, consider networking within your own company – many Managing Directors or your CEO will be on boards already/in the NED world. Find someone to sponsor or mentor you, people you trust, respect and who will be supportive of your journey and ensure that you get invited to the right events or introduced to the right people.
While NED roles are becoming more widely advertised and more specialist recruitment sites popping up, Nadine recommends checking out newspapers such as The Times and The Guardian who have dedicated sections, as does the government. The service provided by some recruitment firms is often more for those who have already established NED careers rather than those just starting out. If you want to find out more before starting the journey, there are also a variety of events and workshops available – like our session – that proffer a little taster of what NED life might look like. Alternatively here are some helpful links where you can find events, courses and useful content:
It can make you a better leader overall
As Lisa says, “Being a NED is very different from being an executive; you have to take a step back from ‘work’ and have a more strategic lens on the direction of the organisation that you are supporting. There’s a lot that gets done by a board that isn’t always seen by the executive team, and there’s a lot of governance relationships that take place as well. Understanding your contribution to the board and having a positive impact on that organisation is a superb experience.”
Nadine agrees: “Steering strategy for an organisation beyond your functional area of expertise has been fascinating. Learning about different areas of the business has helped my executive career and broadened my thinking in terms of business acumen.”
Similarly, Norma found that it really helped with understanding the needs of the board within her own organisation: “I now know what the board is looking for a Chair to say and it has helped me on how to write and present the papers and how to engage in conversation. Sitting on the other side of the fence you also then know the right questions to ask that are both supportive and challenging.”
Understand what companies look for/need in NEDs
Some boards will need NEDs with senior executive experience, i.e. Managing Director or CEO, especially if they’re quite small and require your expertise from the get go. Larger boards on the other hand, may look for those specifically with non-executive experience or where this will be their first NED position, because they have the resources to train and mentor someone, especially if they are trying to increase diversity and inclusivity within the board. Norma therefore recommends looking for bigger boards who both want to and have the time to invest in you.
Lisa’s experience echoes this: “Fortunately, for the board on which I serve, age is no barrier, because we are serving young people and so we have representatives from the student organisations on the board. This is absolutely critical and ties into the Black Lives Matter movement, because a large proportion of the college group is Black and there is strong recognition that the board is on a journey to reflect its student body. We’ve taken that very seriously and changed targets amongst other things, but allowing young people to be representatives on the board has been transformative because they are the customers we are serving.”
Lisa’s advice is to consider your alignment to the strategy of the organisation and what you can add to that; build your case based on what your contribution is going to be. NED interviews are very different to those for an executive role. Don’t run through your CV and everything you’ve ever done – that’s not what they’re looking for. Instead, focus on elevating and communicating your experience and skills, and how you will translate that to help them. What matters is that the board reflects the strategy and how it will achieve its competitive advantage. You need to address the value proposition question for yourself.
Much of the time it’s about the dynamics of the board and the relationships between its members and stakeholders. One of the key aspects is being able to bring your ‘authentic’ self to the role, so choose companies that you would still work for as an executive otherwise you will find yourself being a less genuine NED.
Think outside of the technology box
Initially, one of the barriers for technologists getting into the boardroom is that boards are worried you’re bringing a single skill to the table and not enough broad business and commercial understanding – even if that isn’t the reality. You need to demonstrate that you’re there to help the business grow through dealing with business risk and helping direct strategy etc. If you’re not showing a wider understanding of the world and a wider business mindset, it will be difficult to get your foot in the door. Lisa says to think of it as a T-shaped CSR role; functional expertise combined with vision and the ability to influence strategy.
Norma notes however, that since the onset of the global pandemic, there has been a flurry of companies looking for NEDs with digital technology and data experience. Everyone is going through a transformation of sorts, as a result of Covid-19. It has highlighted how unprepared some businesses were and the lack of attention previously given to their technology team and department. Use this to your advantage – at senior technologist level, you are cutting across the whole span and already managing small teams. To be a good CIO or CTO you already have commerciality, understand the numbers so if you can demonstrate this and your business acumen, now is a really really good time to start looking for a NED role.
Although things are changing and there has been a rise in women and people of colour on boards over the last five years, gender parity and racial equality has still not been achieved, but diversity for diversity’s sake is not progress. Lisa says: “The strong emerging theme is diversity of perspective/thinking and away from any diversity/demographic link.”
Norma believes women and Black people should earn their place on that board – you don’t want to be shoehorned in because you fit either or both characteristics. But she also believes boards are more willing to do the work and are looking for talent in different places to widen the net. Lisa agrees – the board on which she serves changed its recruitment firm because it wasn’t bringing diverse talent to the table. And she knows of others who have done this also. While she believes companies are being more reflective, be wary of boards which are more concerned with optics, because it may not actually reflect diversity within the company. Having said that, you can get a sense of the culture of an organisation through meeting the people and depending on how open the CEO and chairman are, you will hopefully get the opportunity to change things from the inside.
It’s a balancing act
The time spent executing your NED duties is likely to be more than you expect. It’s not always easy to manage and effectively you are doing two jobs. Lisa also points out that those juggling caring responsibilities as well, may need to consider the timings of meetings etc. if they are likely to clash with such commitments. While most companies outline time commitments when advertising a post, bear in mind that some roles will require training and auditing on top of other board duties, but there are options around it. Different boards will have different requirements i.e not-for-profit boards or non-paid board roles tend to require less demands of your time and you can dip in and out a bit more than a paid board. Nadine, for example, takes annual leave to honour her NED role commitments.
Be prepared for a lot of reading! Nadine spends one day per month perusing relevant documents. It’s required to ensure you’re abreast of all the issues, can represent your views correctly and have the right conversations at the board meetings. Norma agrees, but believes that loving the company you’re working with as an NED really helps as there is a commitment, but you have to believe in the purpose of the company and want to invest your time and make those sacrifices.
Lastly – think about logistics with not only balancing the commitments of your current role but making sure your management team has signed off on a new NED role. Check your contract to see whether taking on such a position has any restrictions around it and if there are any conflicts of interest that need to be considered. From our panelists’ experience, most companies are likely to be supportive because you’re developing yourself as a leader and they will benefit from that, but they reiterate that you need to carry out due diligence first before you start putting in the groundwork and looking for roles.
With so much stellar advice, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to begin. So, we asked the panel what one thing they would recommend you to do in the next month to help progress your journey to becoming an NED. This is what they had to say:
- Plan out your routes to market – Have a view already on which sectors or businesses you’re particularly interested in. Don’t go for the large listed companies because it’s very difficult to get that type of role straight off the bat. It’s about planning approaches to contacting headhunters, speaking to other NEDs and networking and carving out time in your diary specifically to do those activities;
- Think about your elevator pitch – What is your board proposition? What will you bring to the table in terms of digital strategy, business growth and navigating obstacles; run that thought leadership into crafting your proposition;
- Be someone who can translate technology – Boards are spending millions on technology and they don’t always understand it and the link to business value or strategy. They need someone who will help them do so; that’s where you come in.
We wish you the best of luck on your journey to becoming a NED and hope this has given you some food for thought and practical actions to take forward. As Norma rightly said, it will take time and rejections aren’t personal. Just remember that every ‘no’ is a step closer to a ‘yes’!