Do you have what it takes to be a successful non-executive director?

5th October 2017 in News and Events

The demand for good non executive directors, particularly women, capable of making a real impact beyond the usual governance activities has never been higher.

Many Churchill alumni in senior positions will be considering becoming non-executive directors (NEDs), some will be asked to become NEDs and some already are NEDs. Churchill alumnus James Butler (U66) talks to us about why he, alongside Møller Senior Associate Ruth Berry, have designed a unique one-day programme to help alumni explore moving from senior executive and highly specialised roles such as CEO and COO to non-executive directorships, which require a different approach. This transition is particularly challenging for those whose careers have been in professional services like the law, rather than directly in industry itself.

James Butler

James Butler

James has worked extensively on the transition from an executive role to a non-executive role having started his career in professional services he is now an experienced non-executive Director and Chairman. He is currently a non-executive Director of Zurich Assurance and Chairman of Endsleigh Insurance Services.

We spoke to James about this new programme:

How did you first get involved with the Møller Executive Education team at Churchill College?

I have worked with Møller Executive Education for many years in the professional service firms space helping clients like Allen and Overy; Linklaters, Herbert Smith; Bird & Bird; Freshfields to communicate more effectively with clients when pitching for new work. This involved coaching teams to have better conversations with clients and develop as a trusted adviser. I did a lot of work with the top legal firms with Ruth Berry, Mike Mister and other Møller Partners and Associates, preparing equity partners to give up equity at 55, and transition from highly specialist technical roles into the broader role of a non-executive director in industry.

My interest in supporting and helping senior executives has grown out of this work as an Associate of Møller.

Why would a senior executive who has had a successful 25 year career in the UK and internationally need to go on a programme to learn how to become a NED?

Whilst their experience may well be invaluable, it will not necessarily translate into the boardroom as an effective NED without them making a real effort to focus on developing broader skills and understanding the nature of a NED role.

Where do non-executive directors come from?

In the last 10 years the number and importance of non-executive directors (or ‘NEDs’) in UK companies has grown significantly. It is often argued that the non-executive director world draws its new directors from a narrow range of experience typically ex-CEOs and ex-COOs. This is not always the case, but it is in many cases even though a broader range of experience would be just as well-suited. For example I have often seen lawyers, accountants and other specialists not win NED roles because they are categorised as lawyers or accountants with a narrow area of specialism when actually, they will have a broad range of skills which they need to communicate such as independence of mind, listening skills, and the ability to challenge and support at the same time.

What is the motivation for taking on a non-executive director role?

It varies. Sometimes on examination of their motives and the likely aspects of the particular role being considered, people decide it is not for them. Sometimes it becomes clear it could be very much for them. Motivations will vary considerably.

What makes an effective NED?

The most effective non-executive directors understand that a balance of hard-headedness and sensitivity is necessary to support and challenge company executives. They recognise that good relationships and effective communication, as well as independence of mind, are key to questioning, analysing, and influencing sound decision-making. They have to learn how best to influence the CEO, the executive directors and their fellow NEDs.

What are the success criteria for a NED role?

Initially, it is all about making an impact and making as good a first impression as possible. Then it is about building an effective relationship. This involves working out what relationships you need, building a good relationship with the team, being wary of the danger of ‘Group Think’ and having tools to overcome that. Respected NEDs will be those that are able to lift the quality of the debate and stick to the big picture rather than being dragged into tactics or detailed executive management. What we will do on the programme is to strip out and analyse what is involved in the role which will help people identify whether this role will suit them and if so what to do to gain maximum impact.

When is the programme and what will it help participants achieve?

It is a one-day programme on 12 January 2018. I am co-Programme Director with Ruth Berry, who has 20 years’ experience in leadership development, teaching diverse and dynamic management executive education courses for multinationals, such as Royal Dutch Shell, and world-leading business schools.
The day will have a very practical focus and we will explore what it feels like to be a NED. Some of this will be done using a very interactive role play based on a complex real-life set of circumstances that I had to deal with as a NED which brings to the fore issues of being independently-minded, and sticking to your values and ethics in a very grey area. We will also look at the motivation for taking on the role, and every participant will leave with a practical toolkit for taking on a Non-Executive Directorship.

The NED role is not one that will suit everyone and I am really looking forward to sharing my experience with Churchill Alumni and others.

* In a survey of over 3,000 global companies, Credit Suisse found that women held 14.7% of board seats in 2015.

 


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