Valerie Gordon-Walker’s non-executive career has taken her onto boards in sectors as diverse as aviation (as independent NED and RemCo/NomCo chair at Airport Coordination Limited UK and internationally), insurance (as independent NED at Tokio Marine Kiln Ltd) and government (she was previously NED and chair of remuneration at DWP Digital). She’s also had a highly successful executive HR career as a managing director in various large, international businesses. 

The key milestones in her own career that have helped her to build a strong NED portfolio are:

  • sitting on global executive committees
  • being exposed to general management outside of HR
  • working internationally at the highest strategic levels.

“If someone is considering you for a board position, they typically don’t want to see a purist HR or risk or finance professional; they are looking for broader experience at senior level,” she says. “You might not formerly have been sitting on the board, but you will have had considerable interaction and accountability with the board.” While for HR professionals that interaction often comes most naturally via a RemCo, you need to demonstrate understanding of board matters beyond remuneration, she adds.

If becoming a non-executive director is an aspiration, Valerie advises thinking early about filling any gaps in your career. For example, if you’ve only ever worked in a large corporate, how can you demonstrate that you can understand the challenges of working in a smaller organisation with fewer resources, or that you could keep up with the pace of a tech start-up? Given that only a small number of people start with a large plc board position, your interactions with different types of organisation is critical. Having additional experience as a charity trustee or a school governor also demonstrates, as Valerie puts it, “that you have always cared about sitting on a board, rather than seeing it as something you do when you retire.” She adds: “You need to think about your story – create your own narrative.”

Her own route to a portfolio of NED roles involved first taking on external independent senior board advisory roles, including at both the UK financial regulators (the PRA at the Bank of England and the FCA). “That gave me practical and demonstrable board-level experience which I could clearly articulate,” she says. But despite her significant experience, she admits, like many independent NEDs, to occasionally wanting to jump in and do, as opposed to remembering that the role is to nudge and support. As she says, “Less is sometimes more.”

Some sage advice from a friend helped: “They’ve hired you to bring all your experiences from the past. If they wanted you to be an actuary, or a pilot or a civil servant, they’d have hired that skillset!”

Valerie’s top tips

  • Think about your ‘board story’ and how you can fill gaps and position yourself. 
  • Don’t sit on your laurels: get out there and network. 
  • Remember, you’ve been hired based on your own experience, not other people’s.

In this series

Case study

Advancing your career from HRD to NED: Barry Hoffman

Case study advice on finding the right NED role and understanding your accountability as a board member

Case study

Advancing your career from HRD to NED: Jean Tomlin OBE

Case study advice on finding a NED role that shares your values and how to make an immediate impact

Case study

Advancing your career from HRD to NED: Louise Wilson

Case study advice on understanding the time commitment of a NED role and the skills you need to act as a ‘critical friend’

Case study

Advancing your career from HRD to NED: Lynne Weedall

Case study advice on thinking through your aspirations to become a NED, what you hope to achieve and what value you will bring

Case study

Advancing your career from HRD to NED: Simon Linares

Case study advice on deciding whether a NED role is for you and the difference between executive and non-executive roles

HRD to NED: How to advance
your career

Insight from board-level headhunters and HR leaders who have landed NED roles to help you set yourself up for success.

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