Often HR leaders talk about having a long-term aspiration to become a Non-Executive Director (NED) or a Trustee ‘later in their career’. For many, there is a view that this is something they can’t undertake until they have reached the top of their Executive Career. For some, there is a ‘mystique’ about what it involves and how to get that first position. For many, there is a lack of confidence that they wouldn’t be ready, good enough, or have anything to offer.
However, when I explored this with HR leaders who have already taken the step to become a NED or Trustee alongside their HR ‘day job’, the message was clear:
HR leaders have a lot to offer, and they shouldn’t wait.
I was curious to learn more and surveyed 52 NEDs/Trustees who have also held HR leadership positions to research the benefits and practicalities.
The full research findings can be seen in a White Paper. Click here to sign up for my monthly message, Positivity Bites and to download.
They shared these nine pieces of advice for those considering becoming a NED or Trustee:
1. Do Your Research
Most respondents outlined how people should scope out a role until they have clarity around what is needed, and they should spend time giving it thought before committing to it. This applies especially when thinking about the kind of organisation to apply for; public sector is very different to the private in terms of how it operates and the politics within.
“Be clear on why you want to do this and the value you can bring, as well as gain. To ask questions about the financial health of the organisation and its current/future growth and interpret this into a people plan and the people implications. It will help size up the challenge.”
2. Understand the Legal Undertaking
It is important for anyone considering a NED or Trustee role to recognise that UK law does not distinguish between executive directors (ED) and non-executive directors in terms of legal responsibilities, even though NEDs are technically independent of the company, not employees.
The CIPD argue that the legal duties shouldn’t be underestimated, either by those considering such directorships or those organisations seeking to appoint them. In addition, they also say that a comparison can be drawn between the role of directors and Trustees, since directors are entrusted with protecting a company’s assets, albeit for the benefit of the company (CIPD, 2021).
3. Develop Your Networks
27% of respondents learnt about the opportunity through their network. Yet many HR leaders focus their time and efforts on delivering a great job internally, and neglect their external exposure, relationship building and keeping in touch with their professional contacts.
Basil leRoux, Partner and head of HR practice at Berwick Partners summed it up when he said:
“Whilst Executive Search firms do play an important role in helping individuals secure NED opportunities, your personal network is just as critical. Yet the majority of HR Leaders I talk to say their own network is either non-existent or not as strong as it should be.”
Nurole CEO, Oliver Cummings, advises that to break the cycle of HR leaders not being taken on to boards, they must be proactive, start networking, and not wait for a tap on the shoulder – they must have confidence to put themselves forward.
4. Be Realistic About Time
It is crucial to be realistic about the time commitment of the role. There tend to be a lot of short notice requests, reading, and additional meetings. When considering applying for a role their advice was to double or even triple the stated time commitment in order to be realistic. Also be aware that the work may be sporadic with busier times and the need to be ‘on call’ whenever needed.
“Definitely do it if you have the time commitment/capacity. This was a 4 day a year role, but it is more like 2 days a month on average.”
5. Recognise the Difference Between an ED and a NED
It is important to recognise the difference between ED and NED roles. It is not your job to delve into the operational detail of the company as a NED, but to be an objective advisor. In many cases, influencing change can take significantly longer.
“Recognise how different it is to your executive roles and take more time than normal before trying to influence change.”
6. Focus on Your Passions
It’s important to think about the NED or Trustee role you’re applying for and have passion for the business area or for the cause. It is a wonderful way to ‘give back’ but it would be a big time investment if it is not something you are passionate about.
“Consider something close to your heart and values but will stretch you. Absolutely consider it as the strategic exposure, structure and governance is great experience.”
Also make sure you are doing it for the right reasons:
“Don’t do it because you think it will look good on your CV. Do it because you really want to.”
7. Get a Sponsor or Mentor
Some of the respondents spoke about how they found it was crucial for them to have an experienced NED or Trustee who could act as a mentor, especially someone who can help you to study boardroom politics, etiquette and ethics, and who can help you believe in yourself:
“I wasn’t sure enough of my abilities. So, my advice is to get a mentor and sponsor who will help you.”
8. Be Confident
The respondents were clear that HR leaders can bring a great deal to Boards with a wide range of relevant knowledge and experience from organisation design to talent management, reward to the future of work, culture change to employee well-being. It’s vital to consider what you offer and remember you have more to give than just being the HR expert on the board:
“Be courageous and confident about the value you bring.”
“Businesses are about people and relationships. Therefore, you are eminently qualified to add extraordinary value as an HR professional.”
9. Go for it
Those surveyed encouraged others to take the step and not wait. They said it’s a great way to learn about broader commercial aspects of other businesses, and good HR professionals can add a lot to these roles.
“Definitely do it, it’s helped so much in the way I performed my role in HR and even now. Getting different perspectives and working alongside other leaders definitely aided my career development whilst doing something worthwhile.”
“Just do it, you will be surprised at what you have to offer.”
If you would be interested to read the full White Paper with the research survey findings and helpful resources click here to sign up for my monthly message, Positivity Bites and to download.
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