Transitioning from an executive to a non-executive career is a challenge for anyone, and senior legal and compliance professionals are no exception. Through extensive experience of advising organisations on hiring Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) as well as individuals on ‘going plural’ and building a portfolio, Adamson & Partners is happy to share some insights and useful suggestions.
To note, some of these suggestions may also provide value for other applications and interviews, outside of NED applications.
Let’s start at the beginning
When looking to transition into any new role, it’s important to assess your strengths and experience and consider how these would best translate into a NED role. When doing this, you need to be honest with yourself and realistic about what type of organisation (scale, complexity, etc) could benefit from your skillset. In many cases, a smaller business may appreciate your wider senior experience and subsequent contribution, and in turn, you may find it more rewarding. To a degree, a true passion for a cause, a business, or an industry may compensate for certain gaps in your skillset or experience.
However, before embarking on an NED role, thorough research is essential; so that you can be sure to understand how the NED role differs within listed, privately held, or private equity-backed businesses and how it fits into the governance structure. Through this, you may identify other options for first-time NEDs to earn their stripes, such as in mutual societies and charities as well as subsidiary and advisory boards, to help you accurately determine which NED role is the right fit for you.
In general, NEDs of corporates are appointed for a fixed period, with an extension for a further term being quite common. As Boards are being worked harder than ever before, this is a serious time commitment, so you will need to plan your portfolio and balance your private life and other appointments carefully with a select number of NED engagements. This will help you feel passionate about your business endeavours and make a meaningful contribution over time.
It’s important to note that your choice of NED mandate will send a message to the market, with your first appointment setting the tone of your portfolio going forward. Furthermore, you should be mindful that your reputation will be tied to the organisation and vice versa: stepping down from a Board, no matter how valid and benign your reasons, may undeservedly reflect negatively on the organisation. Equally, things going wrong ‘on your watch’ may raise questions.
Another point to consider is whether current executive, consulting or other non-executive commitments may create real or perceived conflicts of interest. If you are planning to combine a non-executive role with a day job, make sure you ask permission from your employer.
CV and Interview Prep
Your executive CV will need a rework to emphasise those skills and experiences relevant to the work at Board level. This may require several drafts so do not be afraid of asking people for advice. Think about the job that you want as much as the jobs you have had, your CV is your calling card, and whilst content is important, also make sure that you spell-check and that the layout matches the way you wish to be perceived.
However, the CV is only the start of it. Often, the client can be excited about a candidate on paper who then lets himself or herself down at interview by not having done their ‘homework’ properly. There is plenty of information available about businesses, their management, and stakeholders – read as much as possible and get under the skin of an organisation. Ensure that you spend some time understanding the formal requirements of a NED in that specific organisation and the business strategy it pursues.
Traditionally, Boards tended to look at the quantitative, financial aspect of a business and as a NED you still need to be able to apply this filter. However, NEDs also need to take a qualitative view and be mindful of non-financial risks and the overall reputation of a business. There are now many more stakeholders on the scene who require the attention and big picture perspective from a NED.
Look for and emphasise the relevant, transferable skills in your experience; perhaps you have sat on the Boards of subsidiary companies of your employer, or of a charity. Supply examples of where you have already had to adapt to the NED mindset of questioning rather than doing and where you have dealt with risk management and governance issues, for example.
Whether you interview with a headhunter or a Chair, be authentic and genuine during the interview as clients don’t want someone who is going to conduct him or herself as if they are doing the Board a favour by being there. They want someone who is going to immerse and apply themselves (e.g. take the time to visit sites, meet key executives, etc). A good NED is someone who can contribute to a range of subjects and is crisis-proven.
Getting on the radar
Your personal and professional networks may be your most effective asset. Check where some of your previous CEO, CFOs, HRDs, and other fellow travellers have gone and who already has built a portfolio and should think of you as an aspiring NED. Also, you may have built a network of bankers, consultants and partners in law or accounting firms throughout your executive career, who might be able to provide recommendations or make introductions. All of these provide an extended network and access to potential opportunities. In the appropriate way, be proactive and open about your NED ambitions.
A common mistake is to send your CV to every search firm you can think of. However, this part of becoming a NED also requires careful planning. Firstly, most search firms will handle some non-executive appointments, but their focus may not be on industries, geographies, etc. that are relevant to you. Again, leverage off your network and find out the names of the search firms handing the type of appointments that you are interested in and suited for. If you can, get a recommendation from someone who is already plugged into these firms and get him or her to write on your behalf. Otherwise, make sure to identify and approach the search consultant dealing with NED appointments. Start with a well-written email and a CV, a follow-up phone call, and the offer to make yourself available for conversations.
If you are working with a headhunter on an appointment, make sure that you are properly briefed by the consultant and that your level of interest in the role is communicated effectively to the client. Where possible, get an understanding of how your experience and skillset compare to other candidates. Always ask for proper feedback if you have had an interview but are not being taken forward. There might be something that could really help you perform better next time.
Once you have made a good connection with the right headhunters, make sure to drop them an email every few months, letting them know about what sort of things you are looking at and the interviews you have. The purpose of all of this is not just that the search consultant will think of you when a search comes along, but that he or she gets to know you, your style, strengths, and weaknesses. That way, he or she will be a better advocate for you and will be more effective in supporting your search. There is a tacit understanding that you only progress with interviews if you are serious about the appointment. You should be doing your due diligence upfront so that you can accept an offer should it be made. The compensation element should also be covered early and often is a matter of public record – any horse-trading at the offer stage is not considered to be a good tone.
It can take time to find the right non-executive role. These days, Chairs put more thought into how to build a Board with the appropriate skills for the business. They also think about Board structure, size and composition, diversity, and succession planning. Therefore, headhunters work to clear and detailed candidate specifications stating the functional/technical expertise, geographic exposure, relevant sectoral experience, or soft skills of the ideal candidate. However, chemistry is still a very important factor in the selection process and lack of chemistry may not be just an excuse for why you were not taken forward. If you can, be pragmatic and mature about any rejection, try to learn from feedback and adjust your presentation for the next interview.
Whilst some of this may be second nature to experienced search consultants and NEDs, we hope it will serve as a starting point for those readers who are at the beginning of their search and look for easy to implement first steps.
If you are looking to develop your business, we would be delighted to assist. Whether you are looking for your next career opportunity, help expanding your team, or assistance with mergers and acquisitions, contact us today for a confidential discussion.
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