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  • Writer's pictureJulia Reynolds

How do you get Non-Executive positions on Boards

The answer is I don't know!

And do businesses realise the talent out there?

I don't think so!

If you look at the options for finding out about new posts or searching for the right person to fit your organisation they are pretty limited and in my view don't appear to be working.

This represents a vast talent pool that I do not believe is being optimised by businesses and I am not even sure that businesses realise that it is there. Taking on NED's (the right ones) can really benefit businesses. I know from my experience as a CEO, with the right support and counsel they give you along the way, the journey is made easier and less lonely. This is beside all the support you can get from tapping into their network, learning skills that they have and you don't or are not an expert at. Digital skills, HR, Marketing, business change, IT, commercial, finance and cannot know all of this. Different perspectives and disrupting are the words of the moment, or perhaps your business is a market disruptor and you need some steady advice and wise words.

There appears to be a plethora of senior executives burnt out and worn down by running or being senior executives in businesses over the last decade. Why you ask? They have had to perform throughout one of the worst recessions in modern history and the changes in how you do business have never been so dynamic, diverse and where everything is being disrupted. Tough times and transformation exert a lot of energy and then you add to that life stage and the "what am I doing?" questions. This has resulted in a glut of talent looking to build a portfolio career, for a host of reasons. In my research of this subject, these executives want to carry on using their brains and sharing their vast wealth of experience with those executives coming up behind them. They want work life balance and want to stay fit and healthy, but don't have the energy levels they had 10 years ago. Some want or need to make some form of income and some just want something to do to get them out of the house.

There also appears to be a myth around if you have the right companies on your CV you must be qualified or be the best in your industry. This applies not just to NED roles but to all levels of recruitment. I often read of an executive appointment or non-ex and am surprised by the decision, not to take anything away from the individual, but questioning the decision process and perhaps knowing other individuals who I believe to be more qualified and a better fit. But, this is where I believe the process falls down, because there is rarely a proper search made for NED roles, due to the lack of financial gain of going through the process. It is easier to ask someone who knows someone, or failing that the organisations on their CV means they must be right.

There is a difference between what is required on a corporate board to those skills required on a PE backed business and those of a charity. Not forgetting a whole raft of privately owned businesses that would like help and advice, but don't know it is available and don't know where to look for the right person.

Getting the right NED is a very cost effective way of adding skills to your senior team, unfortunately I am not sure many businesses have the right ones, if any at all and many see it as an unnecessary expense, or think it is more expensive than it is. Perhaps the traditional views of a retired white, public school and university educated man, in his 60s or 70s turning out once a month in his 3 piece suit and matching tie and handkerchief, being representative of what an NED is, are still ingrained in our culture, hopefully not.

Recruitment firms. Most recruitment firms do not take on NED roles for searches and placements, because the effort for the fee is not cost effective. The good ones cultivate their relationships with you and will make an effort to stay in touch and mention you in passing. They will invite you to an event and there are individuals who will go out of their way for you because they like you and you have been a lucrative source in the past and could be in the future. But, you cannot blame them for not wanting to take on the roles, which take a lot of effort and given little or no reward.

Your network. Everyone tells me that this is how you find NED roles. It is not what you know it is who you know. Network with all your old contacts, tap them up for their contacts, do 18 holes on the golf course, attend every networking event known to man. This is exhausting, time consuming, you can lose friends and you get ignored a lot. Oh and if you do't play golf, shoot, attend rugby matches it is made even more difficult. There has to be an easier way.

Corporate network cross fertilisation. If you are on the succession planning radar of the corporation that you work for, your bosses and the HR director will be looking for and talking to other corporates to exchange you with, helping with your succession, broadening your skills and preparing you for greater things. Sourcing skills that your board does not have, finding corporate governance support, digital or disrupting skills. This is a great way of getting NED positions, but unfortunately only applies to a select few. There is still a raft of experience out there that could benefit smaller boards, PE backed business and privately owned businesses. These skills are in both big organisations and smaller ones.

Websites. One would think is an obvious place to try and find a suitable NED. However, there are no websites with any real credibility or scale and the editing process and profession-ability still needs a lot of work on those that do exist. Very few businesses are using them, they tend to attract charities, NFP and public sector roles. There does not appear to be a real understanding of the diversity, flexibility and opportunity to to cross fertilise talent.

Every day there is an article written about board diversity. Gender, the number of women on boards, the for and against positive discrimination. The need to embrace different ethnicity and the need for different skills. Yet progress appears to be very, very slow and it does feel that in some instances the view is that we have our quota of X so no need to consider any more! There is also the question raised in a national newspaper recently by a male CEO, of Alpha female syndrome, where a woman will avoid her status being threatened by another female. To me if we could all see each other as people, not with labels on us, then gender, race or whatever other minority theme may be applicable at the time, disappears. If we could see differently the skills required to be "on a board" as the skills required to make a "better board" I think that diversity will come automatically. Looking at things traditionally has to change. The good news is that younger generations do not look at it in this way. They see people as people and people having skills that they don't have rather than threatening them. They embrace disruptors and the boundaries between class, ethnicity and gender and long may it continue and improve. I can't imagine the young women that I am fortunate enough to work with, not seeing themselves sitting on boards split 50/50 as it should be, in their life times. Despite perhaps not exhibiting the traditional ideals of the skills required to sit on a board as they have been up until now.

The buzz words of the moment are disruptors, omni digital experience and customer officer. Add someone from the shop floor on the board and make sure we have a representation of how we operate ethically! Lots of talk about it and certainly some movement, but still not enough to shake up our poorly represented boards. And what about all those new businesses that are disrupting, have a raft of omni digital experience. Where are the people to help them to grow and be perhaps a little more professional, enabling them to raise capital, have a clear business plan and ultimately sell it on? Who do they have to help them?

This is the first blog I have written that does not offer up a solution. I have no answer as to how businesses tap into and get access to the right people to help. What I do know is that there are loads of businesses that need help and there is a large talent pool to help. How do we put the two together? how do we help promote diversity in skills, gender and ethnicity? All comments, suggestions, ideas and connections welcome.

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