Jean Tomlin OBE is the founder and CEO of people advisory firm Chanzo Ltd and is an experienced non-executive director. Until recently she sat on the main board, RemCo, AuditCo and NomCo, and was chair of the ESGCo for J Sainsbury’s plc. She is currently on the boards of Capri Holdings (NYSE) (where she is chair of the Compensation and TalentCo), and Holdingham Group Limited. 

For Jean, the move towards a portfolio career began relatively early. She took on NED positions at organisations including an NHS trust and the Student Loans Company, and was a Commissioner for Judicial Appointments, alongside executive positions such as human resources director for Marks & Spencer plc and at the London 2012 Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“It was a deliberate strategy to have both working in parallel,” she says. “I didn’t think of being a NED as something I did after I got to a certain point in my career; I looked at it as something that I was going to learn about en route. I wanted to broaden my experience early.”

When it comes to finding that often elusive first role, she advises looking for an organisation that shares your values and that you have some insight into, such as an understanding of the sector, the company’s culture or its ways of working, and figuring out where you fit in. “If it’s your first appointment, ticking a few boxes in advance of taking up the role can make you feel more confident about making a contribution and sitting at the table,” she points out.

Once in role, look to add value at the earliest opportunity: “It’s important to contribute from day one. NEDs in most instances are recruited because of their experience and, as such, you are expected to hit the ground running, particularly in your areas of expertise. Of course, an induction to the company is critical but, concurrently with this, contributing and demonstrating your worth builds confidence. Unlike an executive role, you don’t have the luxury of today’s equivalent of your ‘first 100 days’ to contribute – that’s the equivalent of six to nine months of board meetings, taking into account their infrequency! By the same token, it’s important to balance your introduction to the board. Each board operates differently; other members are also assessing how you are going to fit in and what contribution you will make. So being too heavy-handed could be the ‘kiss of death’. It’s a balancing act and it’s not always easy to get it right.” 

In Jean’s view, when assuming a new committee chair role, it’s ideal to ensure time is spent understanding from the previous incumbent (if they are still a member of the board) or others (such as the senior independent director, for example) about the committee’s history, objectives and what the main points of debate have been.

Your contribution must go beyond the functional: “If you only contribute to a finance, technology or HR debate reflecting your area of expertise, you will quickly run into difficulty – you will be seen as too narrow.”

She goes on to say that it’s important to remember you don’t have line accountability. “You are not an executive,” Jean cautions. “You are there to advise, to guide, to add value to the conversation. Use the skills that you’ve learned in your executive capacity to nurture and occasionally try and persuade, but you do not have executive accountability.”

Build rapport and relationships at all levels, treating everyone from executives to PAs with kindness and respect, and leave imposter syndrome at the door. “Have openness to being part of the team and be confident: they selected you, they want you, so get on with it,” she says. “Don’t forget that you have a lot of skills and a contribution that will be valued – build on this with confidence.”

Jean’s top tips

  • For your first role, choose an organisation that shares your values, that you are passionate about and have some knowledge of. 
  • Balance making an early contribution with getting to know the business and building relationships. 
  • Think beyond your functional expertise and remember you do not have executive accountability.

In this series

Case studies

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 studies

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 studies

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 studies

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

Case studies

Advancing your career from HRD to NED: Valerie Gordon-Walker

Case study advice on gaining broad experiences to position yourself for a NED position

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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