Top tips on how to be a great non-executive director

Paul Snell is managing editor at Supply Management
22 April 2015

Non-executive directors should take an “eyes on, hands off” approach to their roles, said a leading HR expert.

Speaking at a CIPS Fellows event in London yesterday evening, John Lockett, a managing consultant at people management firm Penna, described the top traits that companies look for when trying to fill non-executive roles. These included:

• Integrity and independence.
• Balancing engagement with detachment. “You have to be interested in the business and be passionate, but also be able to stand back and say ‘what is going on here?’ – the ability to look at the whole picture,” said Lockett.
• To be able to have tough discussions without rancour and without point scoring.

Lockett pointed out that businesses often look for particular characteristics at different stages of their life cycle and added: “Sometimes a good non-exec director should just be quiet. There are times when they don’t have to speak. There is a bad joke that people used to make about board chairs – and the same for non-execs – a good chair is like a spare tyre. You want it when you want it, but it's back in the boot when you don’t.”

Lockett also explained what traits should be avoided. “Sometimes it’s not our weaknesses that cause us problems, it’s our overplayed strengths," he said.

• Egotism. “When it becomes more about you than the business, that can be a derailer,” he said.
• A confrontational style. Lockett said: “I have seen almost courtroom-type dramas in boardrooms. Questioning and assurance is what drives boards.”
• Lack of preparedness.
• Superficial comprehension. Some people are good at asking question, but there could be not much behind that. “That’s where people with a depth of professional expertise are good at drilling down into difficult issues,” added Lockett.
• Disrespect for boundaries, in particular encroaching on the work of the executive team. New non-executive directors often find this quite difficult, says Lockett, because your conditioning as an executive is to try and leap in and fix problems when they are identified.

The management consultant said a number of concerns were becoming increasingly important to corporate boards. These included: a stronger awareness of risk and governance, the impact of technology, financial literacy and being good at drilling down, without getting bogged down. He said reputational risk is also becoming an issue, with social media a key vulnerability.

Lockett said anybody thinking about becoming a non-executive director needed to consider how much time they could give the position and take into account that the demands being placed on non-executive directors are increasing.

"Don’t just take the first opportunity offered. Find something that suits your expertise and personality type. And don’t just consider what you can contribute, but also think about what you can learn from the experience," he said.

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