Since embarking on a portfolio career over the last two years, Louise Wilson now has three non-executive director positions: trustee at London homelessness charity Thames Reach, NED and chair of the governance and remuneration committee at housing group A2Dominion Group, and NED and chair of the RemCo at services company Vertas Group. Before leaving executive life, she held HR leadership roles, including chief people officer at Clarks and global people director of The Body Shop.
“Everything everyone says is true: it is very hard to find your first NED role,” says Louise. Part of the challenge in finding that first role is the importance of it being the right fit, as most NED positions will require you to commit for at least three years, if not six. And consider the potential damaging personal reputational impact of choosing the wrong organisation. “That makes it a bigger decision than choosing an exec role,” Louise points out. “You need to do your due diligence.”
In her experience, the workload that comes with a NED position is higher than many might expect, with some board packs up to 600 pages long to digest pre-meeting. “You have to be prepared for the work and for getting stuck into the details,” she says. “That’s why the values of the organisation are so important to me: if I’m going to give up this time, I would rather give it to a purpose-led organisation.”
While preparing for board meetings is time-intensive, board members don’t tend to spend a huge amount of time together in person. So building relationships fast is a critical skill, and another reason why choosing the right board is so important. But while having good relationships and getting to know the organisation is essential, so too is a degree of distance. “You have to know enough to not ask totally stupid questions and to appreciate the context, but not so much that everything becomes normalised,” Louise explains. “Don’t forget your job is to try to challenge, to stimulate, to act as a critical friend.”
Now more than ever, boards need to understand culture and organisational effectiveness. “You’re looking at the health of the whole organisation agenda; being able to educate people on that is important. You need to be both strategic and operational: you are giving strategic direction; you are not accountable for the operational execution – but you are accountable for ensuring the organisation has got the right skills, the right resources, is making the right calls and has got the right support.”
Louise’s top tips
- Be aware how time-intensive NED work is and balance your portfolio accordingly.
- Consider the culture of the organisation and the board: will you be able to build relationships fast and effectively?
- Understand the business but maintain a healthy distance to allow you to act as a ‘critical friend’.
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