Advice on becoming a Non-Executive Director…

Christine Tacon shares the benefit of her experience for those interested in becoming non-executive directors/Trustees of a board.

I have been asked a few times recently about how to get started working as a non-executive director (NED) or Trustee of a board, so I thought I would write down my thoughts.

I have been working on boards for over 20 years, my first one being the Rural Payments Agency for 8 years whilst CEO of the Co-op Farms. I then went to be Groceries Code Adjudicator for 7 years, this was a 3-day per week role so I did other NED roles at the same time. I have been on the board of the Met Office, Natural Environment Advisory Council, the AF Group and I was a Governor of Harper Adams University. Now I am a Trustee of the Farmers Club Charitable Trust, Chair of Red Tractor, Chair of MDS Ltd and I chair the BBC Rural Affairs Committee.

Working on a board or as a trustee has legal and financial implications. You are responsible for the governance of the business or charity, and it should not be done lightly. Most boards have professional indemnity insurance to ensure you can’t be sued personally, however you do have a duty to ensure that the business is operating within the law, whether it be financially, health and safety or employer liability. There is training you can do, the public sector run courses if you are on one of their boards, but there are others which you can pay to do.

There is a lot of support around public appointments, they are incredibly keen to get more balance on their boards so go out of their way to make it accessible. First there is guidance which is well worth reading, it explains the types of roles, who can apply, conflicts of interest etc but also you can create an account and get the regular newsletter of everything as it comes up. This could be anything from NED of the Department for Energy, Security and Net Zero to being on the Committee on Standards in Public Life or Chairing the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It is interesting just reading what sort of jobs exist!  The big downside is that the process is ridiculously slow with ministers often having to sign off longlists…3-6 months is not unusual!

There is also an excellent organisation called Women on Boards, it has a resource centre with a wide range of articles, they run training courses, events, offer help with doing your CV and host a massive list of vacancies. They have a lot of roles which are unpaid, but they seem to scoop up anything from public appointments to ones in the press, so have a comprehensive database of vacancies and businesses seeking board diversity go to them. You have to pay, but there are various levels (£20 to £195), but if you are starting out, it is probably worth joining to get an idea of roles and to use their resources.

Many businesses still use head-hunters, even for unpaid roles. So they are paying someone to find you to work for nothing! But if you want to make a career out of being on boards, you need some well-paid roles and the head-hunters are important. If you apply to a public sector role, you often find that it is managed by a head-hunter! I am probably out of date as to which ones to use, but do contact me for my recommendations if you want to get on their radar.

But the lessons I wanted to share about going onto boards are from my personal experience.

  1. Don’t give up the day job. Most businesses approve of an employee doing one NED role as this gives you quite different experience which will benefit your other work. And some businesses like their board members to be employed in a full-time role rather than spread thinly across several businesses: the implication is that you will be more focused on them whilst bringing practical knowledge from your day job. It is also a brilliant way of getting started and learning without the financial risk.
  • Focus on building experience first. You may have to take an unpaid role, eg as a charity trustee or maybe on an advisory board or committee. I ended up doing a lot of work for nothing (University Governor, Member of Living with Environmental Change Business Advisory Board, talking at conferences and being a Public Member of Network Rail) and I can point to 3 jobs I got by having contacts on those committees who encouraged me to apply for board roles in their businesses.
  • Be ready to prove ourselves all over again. Being on a board is different from being an executive working full time. Your role is to advise the executive team and share the benefit of your experience, not to do the job. It is much harder to get these jobs than the executive ones and even harder to predict which ones you will get. A board is trying to put together a mix of skills, so although you might be a strong candidate, if they already have someone they perceive as covering your area of expertise or have a candidate with some added extra that they hadn’t considered when doing the person spec, you won’t even get an interview. I was crest-fallen on many occasions when I started out, not understanding why for example the Food Standards Agency didn’t consider me an ideal candidate…in the end I approached it as a numbers game, i.e. if you apply for 5 you will get one. I became less strict fitting things into a portfolio and more focused on getting enough to earn what I wanted to! I ended up at one point with more days committed than I had in a month as one of the roles took 3 months to tell me I had got it, by which time it had been approved by Cabinet Office and when I said I didn’t have enough time, was told to just do what I could.
  • If you are going to do this full time, focus on a sector. I sought advice from Baroness Barbara Young when I decided to build a portfolio of board positions. That was her piece of advice to me: it is very easy to get interested in many different subjects, but it really helps to keep the roles in a sector so that your experience and learning in one, and background reading keeping up to date, assists in another. She also advised me to get one big job (eg 3 days a week like my GCA role) and fit others round it.
  • Be aware of logistics. Many boards will have a strict timetable, eg board meetings on the last Thursday of the month, so some jobs you find you can’t do because your dates are all committed! And don’t underestimate how long it takes to apply to roles – I allow at least half a day just to do the written application (they always ask you to demonstrate how you meet their person specification, you can’t just send your CV) and if you go forward to interview you really have to do your research, including checking that the organisation is one you want to be associated with as it will affect future roles you apply to.
  • Build yourself a profile. You are not jut being recruited for who you are, but also the contacts that you may be able to bring to the business.
  • Give it a go! Personally, I think we should have much more youth on boards, the businesses who turn you down for lack of experience have probably not yet realised how critical it is to have younger insights. Diversity is important to everyone, so the days of white men who have just retired getting bored jobs working with their mates are largely gone. I can’t predict who will get onto boards, nor whether I will be considered, so why not you?
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