By Francesca Ecsery, advisory member of the Chairman’s Network and a NED for the F&C Investment Trust plc, Air France, Marshall Motor Holdings plc and The AIC (Association of Investment Companies).
With the UK remaining in lockdown and most EMEA countries continuing to operating under tight restrictions, finding and securing Non-Executive board roles can be more challenging than ever before.
Added to the pandemic mix is the fact that the job role for NEDs has changed dramatically on many fronts in recent years. Roles are no longer appointed via black books, but according to critical skills and knowledge from ESG, compliance and diversity to technological know-how, funding/equity investment or CSR along with an increased focus on personal style. While emotional intelligence and an increased demand for active engagement that brings value to the role and business, is more critical than ever.
So, what is the most effective way of securing your next NED role in lockdown, and what are the key tips to ensuring you are top of the interview list? Especially if you are pursuing a full-time portfolio career that requires up to five NED positions (which even in a booming economic climate can prove a constant and ongoing recruitment activity). Today NEDs are faced with an increasingly competitive landscape, limited NED appointments and most roles expiring after three to six years. Here are my five key ways to achieve your next appointment in current times.
Identify where are the roles and opportunities?
Top level recruiters seem really busy and under pressure these days while some headhunters have even been hiring amongst their ranks too, so there are NED roles are out there which need careful tracking down. You can also find them on platforms such as Nurole, Glassdoor, LinkedIn and Women on Boards UK amongst other online resources. While 2020 was a year of reflection and reinvention for corporate Britain, many organisations have also used this period to think about the skill sets that they will need to be successful in the ‘new normal’.
Revenue generating expertise such as marketing or digital transformation experience are increasingly in demand, as is diversity of thinking and diversity of experience, so if you have those skills make sure you evidence them early on in your application or CV.
It is true NED roles are generally less well advertised publicly compared to executive ones and it often feels like a more competitive process too, which is why having resilience but also a good network is key to finding other roles and opportunities as these will amplify your personal brand direct to new opportunities.
How to build and capitalise on your network virtually
Networking in my experience is key. You may have heard that you need to be ‘at the right place at the right time’ but when it comes to finding NED opportunities you really need to be everywhere all the time, which feels impossible. This is why you need to keep networking so that when a role comes up, contacts in your network can remind the recruiter that you exist.
Networking virtually is currently easier and far less time consuming than in person events were pre-pandemic. Right now, you can avoid the additional travel time to attend these physically and at the click of a button drop into a wider range of networking events and people. While not all may suit, many groups allow initial trials free of charge so you can see whether they are the right match for you.
Board level groups include the Chairman’s Network, Women on Boards UK (WOB), NEDA (Non-Executive Director Association), Critical Eye, ESG Competent Boards, the Allbright Collective, amongst others. Of course, developing that contact chemistry and personal capital is harder to build compared to in person but they are an efficient use of time and also offer an effective way to follow up.
Nailing your specific proposition. Don’t be a generalist – identify your niche
Recruiters and Chairs look for expertise (functional or industry) and not just broad enough experience (such as MD/ CEO/VP), to be able to contribute in other board discussions when looking at NEDs. This means having a ‘T Shaped’ profile is important, but also being able to articulate your expertise in a way that is clear and concise. So not only do you have in-depth knowledge and skills in the key areas needed, but you are also good at working with others collaboratively – and expressing that effectively.
You should test what you think is your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) at networking events. If when you describe your USP your interlocuter frowns, you know it did not land well and was probably misunderstood. You need to keep working on your pitch until they say ‘Oh yes, I know exactly what you mean’.
Show how you’ll add value remotely
A NED is an independent director of the company so you don’t generally do any of the operational heavy lifting. To this effect, remote working can be very similar to in-person meetings. Obviously, you need to make sure you read and understand all the paperwork (if not, do some research or seek clarification in advance of the meetings), but in general you should make sure you answer any board related communications promptly and thoughtfully prior to your appointment and beyond.
You can also offer to mentor a senior executive on the board or in the C suite to ensure you have another data point about the organisation. During any board preliminary discussions make sure you contribute to the discussion in a relevant and insightful way, while outside of board meetings you could also share relevant thought pieces or insights afterwards on key discussion points.
Handling the virtual interview
Prepare! Organise a dress rehearsal on camera with a friend on the other side. Or record a video of yourself talking about your achievements. Virtual interviewing has the added benefit that you can have some helpful reminders somewhere near the camera to make sure you don’t forget to convey your key messages.
My other tips for any virtual interviews include choosing a quiet room, turn off all your phone and electronic alerts including email, have a tidy background behind you, speak close to the camera and generally ‘lean forward’. As an icebreaker I normally make a comment about their background, what’s on their shelves or ask about the location they are calling from. I’ve found that people have put quite a bit of effort into their background or creativity as to where they are working from these days (for example, the garden shed, fancy virtual background, dressing room), and often like to share stories or the rationale about where they are or background look.
If you get all these elements right you will not only be on the way to a new NED appointment but also a successful and sustainable NED portfolio, regardless of the economic environment.