Great! You've found your non-executive director role but now what? Below are "hints and tips" gathered from 100s of established non-executive directors over 20 years
Most C-Level Board Directors will know that one of the most important preparations you can make is to create your work plan. Focusing on exactly what it is that you wish t accomplish in the first weeks and months helps a non-executive to map out their plan. The key skills to do this centre around learning; learning by asking lots of questions, observing and more than anything, listening. An old mentor of mine (who knew a thing or two about business, having sold his company for a £nine figure sum) repeatedly told me “two ears one mouth!” and that will stand any non-executive in good stead! Make a plan and stick to it
A well known story that stands out is that of Howard Schultz’s advice to his new CMO; telling her told her to spend her first two weeks going to a different Starbucks every day to “be the barista.” Of course, what Schultz was trying to instil was a view from the ground up – What a great lesson. Any non-executive director worth their salt will talk to staff – find out what they believe the business is all about etc. Gaining key insights into how the business operates and whether or not the members are striving toward a singular mission, and singing off the same song sheet. Or not.
I can almost guarantee that you will find some members within the business who let the side down; even in great teams there will often be at least one person who won’t go along with the Board’s plans, culture or processes. Impressing on the Board of Directors a mindset of hire fast fire faster often makes a real impact on most businesses and the non-executives I have spoken to claim that this approach helps businesses define their futures quicker and focuses the minds of the employees on the task in hand. Of course, hiring and firing is not the job of the non-executive but ensuring the CEO and fellow Board Members take a uniform approach to recruitment is.
Most Boards are very impatient and the true value of a non-executive is much easier to prove in 90 days in a small or start up business than it is in a large corporate. SMEs expect you to be a rock star. Show them that you are. Impress the hell out of them early – especially of your black book of contacts can be of help to the business! Do something to show them they were right to hire you.
As the old adage goes – a smart man learns from his mistakes but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. With so many excellent non-executive directors out there, do not be afraid to reach out and ask for advice. Hindsight is 20:20 vision! Meet them face to face – learn from them and utilise their expertise. Soak up as much as you can.
Take time to understand the numbers and the key metrics that the business operates on. In many smaller businesses, numbers are seen as a time consuming or “nice to have” but the board run on gut feel. As a non-executive director you must instil a numbers numbers numbers mentality and talk to the leadership team to determine what those key metrics are and learn them inside and out!
In the first 90 days it is important to help the organisation to increase its profile in some way. Press contacts or business contacts who can help with this should be reached out to.
Not all problems are created equal! What do I mean by this? You are probably going to determine many issues with any business and as a non-executive you will see that many of these start at the top and trickle down! Pick the challenges you want to address as you won’t be able to solve all in the first 90 days. Some are not as big as others, but unless you fix them early, other progress can’t be made. A PLC non-executive advised me in my early non-executive career to “rank issues as As, Bs and Cs, then start fixing the As immediately, while putting others on a list that may be solved later”.
Whilst you are there to support the CEO and Board – you are also there to challenge decisions and stress test the direction the Board takes the business. A “Yes Man” is as much use as a chocolate fire guard! Don’t be afraid to challenge because if you can’t challenge then you aren’t cut out to be a non-executive director.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ian Wright is the Founder and CEO of VirtualNonExecs.com and has worked with 100s of companies to appoint non-executives and chairs. He sits on the boards of three privately held companies as non-executive and has had multiple businesses that have gone on to sell to private equity.