“Use your contacts & prepare for knock-backs” – Nigel Carrington on winning NED roles.
We were delighted to be joined today by Nigel Carrington, former Managing Partner of Baker & McKenzie. Nigel currently has a full time role as Vice Chancellor of University of the Arts, London plus 7 non-executive roles, all linked to university or the arts.
He left law in 2000 havving already had a role on the advisory board of the LSO.
His first post law role, as CEO of McLaren, came about serendipitously, having been their commercial adviser whilst at B & M. The controlling shareholders decided to sell a 40% stake to Mercedes Benz and Nigel was seen as the ‘boring person’ who could do the dull compliance governance bits required of the Germans whilst also appealing to the Chairman of McLaren. This involved a lot of commercial debt and rights work. They also built a large Norman Foster building while he was there which he became very involved in. In 2005 he left McLaren when he realised that world was not for him, to do Courtauld art course, as that was where his passions lay but was invited to continue as Non-exec Deputy Chair, which he took. This gave him an unexpected source of income and also added a non-executive role to his CV. It was at this point that he decided to develop his NED career – whilst studying at Cortauld.
Because he had the time he called in every favour with every headhunter he’d ever instructed to seek their advice. From that he learnt that:
• Applying for roles directly from an ad in the Sunday Times or FT really can work, and has done for him, but don’t apply casually. Don’t just assume they will want you because you’re a partner in a law firm. E.g. he wrote letter about the tent city in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in his application at Crisis, which helped convey understanding and sympathy and so got it. UCLH hospital trustee application wanted someone with community experience, and the brand new Crisis role provided that tick. The roles don’t come to you – you have to seek them out. Applying really is ok but write a careful cover letter with your CV.
• Networking is also key. The connections really do come through left field. Talk to your friends and once you are on a board, your colleagues as that can really be your best network. It is very hard to get on a headhunter list without an introduction or an unsuccessful application.
• It is crucial to work out what the organisation is like before accepting a role e.g. he got a call to run a charity he’d heard of, so was flattered but did no due diligence. Mistake. Do your homework on roles before saying yes.
Two years later Nigel went on to become Chair of The English Concert. This role came through a friend who knew he had a chairmanship and was interested in the arts since he’d been on LSO’s advisory council while still a partner at Baker & McKenzie.
Applying for roles seriously, and being prepared to fail but to demonstrate your skills to the headhunters along the way, can also really help. For instance, he knew he wanted an executive job in the arts, and he applied (and failed) to get the job as CEO of the RA, but Odgers had done the full process for him including reference taking, through to late stages of the role, and they knew he was a good package. This in turn led to the call from them for his VC role at the University of the Arts. Then the previous apparently unconnected experience was also critical – i.e. the building project at McLaren and the public policy part of his UCLH role etc. Once you’re in the headhunter network, they will keep putting you forward for roles having already done all the hard work.
Being a lawyer is not of itself an attraction to the boards. There are assumptions to be overcome, non-commercial, a blocker, insensitive to people issues, etc. He was not ever recruited for his legal skills, but the skills he had from the legal job have nonetheless regularly been useful. To get the job though, you need to draw on your non-legal experience and be prepared to be knocked back regularly.
Starting from scratch purely as a non-exec career can be fairly difficult, and can make you anxious about finances. The more you can do before you leave the law firm, the better. Don’t expect to make much, if any, money.
Particularly for public sector roles, you need to prepare for a process driven and formulaic affair, but know what you want to say before you get in, so that when the chance arises, you can make the points. Don’t just be reactive. Find someone who’s been through a similar process to your upcoming interview to do a practice session with. Think what you want to say to swing it in your favour and practice first.
When he’s looking to his NED candidates he thinks about the following:
• are they adaptable?
• do they have particular skills we can use?
• have they written a nice human letter?
• are they going to participate?
• are they going to be fun?
• what are my non-board colleagues going to think of them?
Good boards don’t look for conformists, but nor do they ever want disruptive people. More gently challenging members who are going to ask the right questions. A Chair wants other members of the board to ask the difficult questions so he can keep a good relationship with his.
He looks to his board to provide the particular skills they were recruited for, looking for people who will be supportive of the academics, but important that he can use these skills offline outside the board meetings e.g. property, organisational change, vocational skills, training, university admin etc.
He uses the NEDS to provide skills the charity would otherwise pay for (never legal skills). You will always need to add something specific to make you particularly useful, alongside your great analytical skills and rigour. If you’re just an M&A lawyer, you need to create something extra. Finding a niche probably helps.
It is a hard path, making the change from being a lawyer when you have been surrounded by like-minded people in a cosy and reassuring environment where you feel quite good about yourself. And it is quite challenging to redesign your career whilst you are still working so hard.
• It will take time
• Try to reduce your work load
• Start with a small role on a charity board whilst still in full-time practice
• You will need to reconcile yourself to not earning much money and do some financial planning to allow for that
• All lawyers have extraordinary skills but you need to construct a narrative around that to convince others of your skills beyond your legal expertise