Doing Things Differently: How to be a Great NED

There’s a big difference in being a senior executive and a NED. Making a success of the switch takes a change in mindset and the way you’re used to doing things. Here’s an insider’s guide on how to approach a NED role – with practical tips on how to add real value to a board.

Make the time that’s needed

NED roles are often described as requiring roughly one day a month. Whatever you sign up for, expect to need more. There will be reading, preparation and follow ups. To do the job well you have to be prepared to put that time in.

Get ready to step outside your comfort zone

Your specialist expertise will earn you a NED role – be that in risk, governance, technology or any field where the board has a knowledge gap. If you simply want to share that expertise, you may be more suited to a board adviser position. In a NED role, you’re going to have to apply your judgement and critical thinking to things which may be outside your area of expertise, like marketing, HR and property.

Step back from the detail

Learn what matters. Understand the detail but step away from it. In board meetings, focus on the key themes or big issues where you can add value.

Be prepared to let go

As a NED, you won’t have operational responsibilities. You have to get used to the fact that you won’t get a list of actions at the end of a board meeting. That can be frustrating, liberating or both – however it feels, you have to embrace the change.

Don’t get too sucked in

It can be hard to maintain your independence once you get to know the people and the business. But you have to do it. It’s also easy to be sucked into the day-to-day, but you have to keep the distance.

Coax and coach

As a non-exec, you are on the board as an adviser. But there is a balance to be stuck. You should aim to coax others, not tell them what to do. If executives ask for your specific expertise, coach them to find their own solution, rather than just offering your own answer.

Challenge the right way

It’s a non-exec’s job to challenge executive thinking and add a different perspective. But you have to do that in a constructive, non-offensive way. You’re not there to show off how smart, insightful and perceptive you are. Stick to your guns, be passionate, but always stay the right side of respectful. 

Don’t drop any boardroom bombshells

Your job is definitely not to land uncomfortable news or a strong opinion in the boardroom. Make sure the other members are forewarned.

This is the third in a four-part series sharing the knowledge of experienced non-execs. This blog is based on advice given at our recent Q&A session for aspiring NEDs, hosted by Interim Partners and Wickland Westcott in August 2019. Our thanks to Mark Sismey-Durrant, NED, Cashplus, Bill Gray, NED & Chair of Board Risk Committee, Wesleyan Bank and Graham Wheeler, NED at Credicar for giving their time and the benefit of their expertise.

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