Written by Grant Thornton
What goes through your mind when applying for board roles? It depends of course where you are in your NED career, but thinking beyond the due diligence, what should you be researching? Keep reading to find out how can you ensure a rich conversation at interview stage to find out what you want to know.
Let’s take a moment to consider the board perspective. Finding the right person to fill a gap in the board’s make-up can take months of work. Experienced chairs know what they’re looking for in terms of characteristics, supported perhaps by a nominations committee and/or well-developed succession plans.
That’s why wherever you are in your NED career, it’s important that you stand out. It’s easy to focus on what you need to know to appear knowledgeable, but you’ll only stand out if you display curiosity around the less obvious points of the board’s work and composition.
Sharing your views
To understand what you see as important when searching for the right role, we asked a handful of NEDs to rate in order of importance their top five priorities when looking for board positions. As a result, we were able to see what might be the best questions for you to ask at interviews.
We didn’t focus on the usual perspective of what the board is looking for, we decided to look at what you as a NED might want to consider. We also wanted to confirm the ratings by understanding what was least important. Some of the results may surprise you.
What NEDs told us they value in a new role
In order of importance; ‘existing skill-set on the board’ and ‘being able to make a difference’ came joint top. Clearly linked, these two statements demonstrate a desire to bring something new to the board’s existing make-up. ‘Increasing your experience’, ‘performance of the organisation’ and ‘alignment between the board and its committees, the chair and CEO, and board and management team’ took equal third place.
We wouldn’t want to read too much into this as only one point exists between them all, but we were surprised that the board’s existing skills were rated so highly. Is it not a given that if you are on the list, you bring expertise and experience that is sought to complement the existing board, and where possible add real value?
Thinking beyond the value you can bring to a board, consideration of the alignment at top levels and organisational performance are important factors. Evidence around performance will be in the public domain whilst hearing about the degree of internal alignment (or misalignment) can be insightful in terms of the impact on decision making and implementation.
We were surprised that neither ‘group dynamics’ or ‘style of the chair’s leadership’ scored highly. In the board evaluations we carry out, these two areas are often of interest for the chair. Progressive chairs see their style as the glue to ensure the board is working well together. An overly directive chair or a board where unnecessary tensions exist will determine the degree of effectiveness and maturity that board is able to achieve. The chair’s style of leadership should exemplify the best of the organisation’s culture and values. It should act as a guiding light for the board in ensuring purpose, strategy and culture are the characteristics that determine decision making. Without great leadership and dynamics, a board may never be as effective as it could be and the purpose of section 172 never fully realised.
More predictable were two of the three results from the ‘least important’ poll. Neither ‘remuneration’ or ‘increasing your network’ were seen as important. What did come as a surprise was that ‘the degree of change’ was also seen as unimportant. Why might that be? Do NEDs see themselves as removed from the direct impact of change? Or perhaps they have experienced organisational change throughout their careers and therefore don’t see it as a threat? We didn’t define whether we were referring to change at board level or within the organisation. Either way, any form of change will disrupt the board’s work and put pressure on the executives and their people.
Recognising the impact on the management team should encourage NEDs to seek ways of supporting the organisation outside the boardroom. This will reduce the distance between themselves and the management team, and so build trust. Some of the most effective boards encourage their NEDs to build strong relationships across the organisation. This ensures that they can bring first-hand observations and opinions to gain an independent perspective on executive reporting.
Five questions that could make a difference
Drawing on the poll results and complementing those with our own experience in this area, here are some less obvious questions to reflect upon with additional qualification questions:
- What is the definition of a successful NED on this board?
- Take note of what the chair sees as delivering success
- Check what is said first and what isn’t mentioned at all – what does that tell you?
- What are the executives looking for from the NEDs?
- What value does the board bring to the performance of the organisation?
- Where is the emphasis – is it in direction and strategy or assurance and oversight and how will your skills help?
- What are their thoughts on the quality of executive reporting, dashboards and board packs?
- What access do NEDs have into the organisation?
- What work is done at board around purpose, strategy and culture?
- What do you want to hear the chair and CEO talk about in this area?
- Are these three key areas of the board’s work told as an integrated story or in isolation?
- How do they measure these three areas and what is uppermost in their minds right now?
- How do they describe the diversity and dynamics of the board?
- Is the explanation of diversity given at a surface level such as gender/colour/age or is the explanation deeper and includes diversity of thinking and how that is leveraged?
- How does the chair describe their style of board leadership?
- How aligned is the board in its thinking and where do the tensions exist?
- And finally, what one thing would improve the board’s effectiveness?
In this article, we aimed to widen your thinking around what NED role is right for you, and what type of board and organisation would really benefit from your expertise. The five questions simply skim the surface of what might be useful to consider, but hopefully we have piqued your interest enough to want to find out more.
For further insight into the shifts that are happening at board and management levels, and why dynamic evaluations can make a real difference, see Grant Thornton’s guide to evaluating board effectiveness.
Contact Karen Brice for further information on the top things to consider when taking on a new NED role.
Grant Thornton has partnered with NEDonBoard to bring these insights to you.
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