Who should I pay to help me be a Non-Executive Director (NED)?

Hands piecing together a jigsaw puzzle as part of a team - teamwork

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I am continually active on LinkedIn and I am incredibly open to signing up to various email newsletters.  As soon as I had ‘Director’ in my job title, I was approached by several different organisations that promised me that they could make me a successful Non-Executive Director.  Maybe you are too?

There is a wide range of these organisations.  They are very keen to take your money and promise you the world.  Sadly, in many cases they fail to deliver on their promises.  The amounts of money they are looking for vary enormously, as do the kind of services that they are offering.  I wanted to give you a brief survey of the kinds of things that are out there so that you can take a proper view of whether, and where, you want to place your money, if at all.

The Initial Promise

So, let’s talk about the simplest entry level offer. The basis of the deal is this: you register on-line, they capture your details and you commit to pay an annual subscription (sometimes a multi-year subscription).  In return, they promise you access to the large number of NED roles that they have on their database each month.  If you ever provide your e-mail details, they will send you regular information about how many opportunities there are each month.  They may give you details of a few teaser role descriptions.  In return for between £450 and £2,000 a year they will give you “exclusive access” to this register.

To my mind the value you get from this is minimal.  From their point of view, it is great as they can tell the advertisers that they have access to tens of thousands of potential NED’s and they can say to people who aspire to be NED’s that they have access to thousands of opportunities. They can sit in the middle and take the money from both sides of the market with a simple message board.  You, as the NED (or potential NED) still must go through the process of preparing the right CV, applying for positions and making sure that your value proposition is fit for purpose.

Additional Services

They will then look to upsell additional services.  So, they might give you a CV workshop to help you prepare your CV or an interview workshop to help you prepare for interview.   Too often, many of these services are formulaic rather than bespoke.   In addition, I have not come across suppliers who prepare you to be realistic about the specific opportunities that you have to develop a portfolio of non-executive roles.  Nor do they help you shape the bespoke roadmap to success.

Programmes (often on-line)

An alternative approach is characterised as a training programme.  You can expect to pay £500-£600 a month for a fairly generic set of modules delivered by someone who is more or less informed about the non-executive marketplace with the promise that at the end of this you will be equipped to get your first NED position.   

Sometimes the programme offers 1-2-1 support, although this is typically just help to complete the ‘homework’ rather than to achieve your first appointment.  The biggest criticism I have of this kind of offer when they do no pre-screening to see whether you are even suitable for an NED appointment.  They never address the question “is it right for you?”.  To have any chance of winning a NED appointment, you need the right experience and the right profile. You need to be able to prove your ability to establish governance and offer advice as opposed to provide executive action and delivery.  It is a bit like being invited to sign up to a Masters programme without anyone establishing with you whether you have the capacity to undertake the learning and whether that Masters programme will actually have an impact on your employability for the rest of your career.

Chartered Director

The qualification of Chartered Director has been pioneered in the UK by the Institute of Directors (IoD) with their fellowship programme.  I have spoken to participants and ‘graduates’ of this programme.  There is absolutely no question of the rigour of training that you receive.   The programme offers considerable contact time and a significant amount of ‘homework’.  Importantly, you will also be part of a cohort of people going on this journey together which gives you a natural networking group for mutual support.  You would hope that the Institute of Directors will help you to find future NED positions, although I am not convinced that this is happening.   At the end of programme, you will have a very credible qualification that says “if you chose to engage me as a NED, I really understand what is involved. I understand my responsibilities around company law, governance and risk management etc. I could be a properly knowledgeable NED”.  

The two gaps I think this programme is unable to close are skills and experience. How do you acquire the necessary skills to move from a directing role to an influencing role or from an executive role to a governance role?

Although qualifications are valuable, and the Chartered Director qualification is a unique offer in the marketplace, my experience is that boards and chairmen of boards are more interested in skills and experience, rather than qualifications for being a director. Does being a Chartered Director mean that when you become a NED you can do a better job?   I’m sure you will.   Does it mean that new opportunities will open up to you that wouldn’t be available if you weren’t chartered? Possibly. But I am not convinced that it will necessarily get you to where you want to be.

Joining a support group

There is a final class of organisation which you might call an affiliative support group.  The one that I have the most respect for is “Women on Boards”.  Initially based in central London they have a simple, low cost membership structure: you can attend their sessions on a pay-as-you-go basis but get a discount if you are a member.   They also have a jobs board.  It was founded by a woman who was committed to trying to change the gender balance for NED positions on FTSE 200 boards and other large organisations.  She has been able to draw on a fantastic support network and they have exceptionally good speakers.  Most importantly you can join a community for mutual support.  As far as I know, you don’t have to be a woman to join. You can try out a half day or evening seminar, or perhaps a one day course.  Here you can get to grips with what it would mean for you to be a NED,  receive some support from others on the journey and, most important of all, be in a position to make a realistic assessment of how to get there.

What else can you do?

If none of this appeals to you, what options have you got left?  There are three things that you could do which I think will help you to become a potential NED.

  1. The first thing is to get some experience of governance.  Becoming a school governor, or chair of governors give you excellent free training and can be very rewarding (often the parent governor route is most accessible).  An alternative is  becoming a trustee of a local charity, where you are less likely to get training but you certainly get to see what is involved in governance and how you operate through influence rather than direction.  Look for a charity that is more than two years old and has a turnover of more than half a million.  Becoming a trustee of an arts organisation (local theatre, community arts venue etc.) can be a wonderful way of meeting interesting people and extending your network beyond your normal professional circles.
  2. The second thing is to become a mentor or get a coaching qualification.  Both experiences will help you to understand how to work through influence: through asking powerful questions rather than just through direction.
  3. The third thing to consider is becoming a Portfolio Executive as a you starting point for your ambitions for a non-executive role.  By having a portfolio of part-time executive roles, you will get a broader experience of a wider set of businesses and where, again, you are going to be much more involved in governance and operating through influence.  This is because if you are only in a business for two, three or four days a month then you cannot have the impact that you want to have just through direction.

In Conclusion

Be aware of the cautionary tales about service providers in the non-executive director development market.  Talk to other people who are NEDs or trustees.  Recognise that, as in any significant change in the way you live your working life, it will require time and effort to grow and develop the skills, experience as well as the knowledge to be effective in a NED role.  Ensure you have this in place before you look to pay others to give you access to the NED job market and remember that most NED roles that are publicly advertised have 100s of applicants and are subject to an executive search process  by an agency that already has a database of potential candidates.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.