Simon Linares terms his portfolio career as his "third career". His first was in sales and marketing and his second was in HR leadership, where he was most recently chief people officer at Direct Line Group. Now he balances a mixture of non-executive roles (he is RemCo chair at Nottingham Building Society) with mentoring and advisory work. “I wanted to do the bits of the HR director job that I loved, like working on big strategic challenges and developing people, but not the rest,” he laughs.

He advises that those thinking of a portfolio career should start with the ideal whole portfolio in mind, considering aspects like flexibility. “Don’t start by looking for a non-exec role: start by working out what having a portfolio means for you and your whole life plan,” he adds. “How busy do you want to be? What else do you want to be doing? How flexible do you want to be? Non-executive work is not flexible: the board meetings are in the diary for the next two years and can’t be changed. Do you want what comes with chairing committees?”

Alongside that, aim for clarity on what you hope to gain from a NED role, whether that is working as part of a team, learning a new sector or enjoying transformation. Once you know what a good role would look like and why you want it, let executive search firms know – so you are on their radar for suitable openings. You will need to position yourself differently. “Exec jobs are about positioning yourself based on what you can do; non-exec roles are about positioning yourself around what questions you can ask and what you can bring to the board discussion,” says Simon.

When joining a board, active listening and keen observational skills come to the fore. “Understand the context and then work out where you can bring something valuable to the discussion and conversation,” he advises. “You need to challenge, bring balance and different perspectives. It’s more like having a coaching conversation than being the leader.”

You’ll also need to be prepared for the volume of pre-work required for each meeting, which can run into hundreds of pages, and the need to be across all of it. As for the best advice Simon has ever received around being a NED? “Non-execs should be hands out, noses in.”

Simon’s top tips

  • Think about what the ideal portfolio looks like for you. How flexible do you want to be?
  • Expand your network of executive search firms and influencers.
  • Position yourself differently: NED roles are more about ‘asking’ than ‘action’.

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

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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

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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’

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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

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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
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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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