You’re Successful – Now Define Why – Advice for Prospectve NEDs
This week we welcomed David Grigson to BCKR – Chairman of Trinity Mirror plc, formerly the CFO of Emap and Reuters.
Here’s a useful summary of what he had to say;
David’s first executive board position was at EMAP in 1989 going on to become FD at Reuters. His first NED position was at Carphone Warehouse while still at Reuters, but when Reuters merged with Thomson in 2008, he decided to take a year off to ponder his next move.
In choosing what to do next David thought what about what he would miss from his executive life.
• Building a working team and
• The boardroom – most of the big decisions are taken in that room and he had also come across the most interesting people and diverse views there.
At that point David decided to go plural.
David went on to join the board of Standard Life, becoming Audit Chair. He went on the board of Ocado in 2010 and gained a chairmanship of Creston plc, a smaller company, working his way back up the corporate size ladder, finally joining the board of Trinity Mirror where he is now chairman. David has been on the boards of 9 companies as financial director, NED or chairman. He has also taken on a couple of charity roles to help an organisation in Nepal.
Most of David’s experience comes from his time on public company boards and his key learnings are as follows:
• When looking for NEDs there is a tendency for chairmen to look for people in terms of their experience boxes (digital, regional expertise etc.) rather that looking at the “who” story. Being on a board is as much about the “who” as the “what”. NEDs are really judging people. Is the CE or other members of the executive team putting the right strategy together? Are they able to deliver?
• Often CVs are a list of achievements. What David looks for is whether or not you are a good judge. As a NED you are not there as a part time CFO or lawyer. You will never win an argument based on fact against the executive team. They know too much. Your job is to learn how to legitimize your contribution.
• The most useful activity of the board takes place outside the board room. Good chairs/CE’s are informing people as they go along. The board meeting is the icing on the cake. The small interactions during the breaks or over lunch are the most important.
• Style is as important as substance. How you use your experience is crucial. It is very easy to make a fool of yourself. How you challenge meaningfully is really important and lawyers are well placed to make those challenges.
• As a NED you don’t have a lot of influence and power on your own (against the executive team). If the chair and CE are hell bent on one path it is pretty hard to counteract.
• There is no doubt that a good team of NEDs add a substantial amount to a company.
o Casting an eye over what is being proposed and challenging on 3 dimensions
People – do we have the right people to deliver the strategy
Direction – are we going the right way
Pace of delivery – is it going to be fast enough
o You’re not going to offer much if anything on the detail but you should ask questions to deepen and improve your knowledge.
o NEDs can and do make judgements on risks and values. A good NED can tell the difference between:
Vision and fantasy
Boldness and recklessness
Myths and legend
How are lawyers viewed?
As with HR professionals, lawyers tend not to be viewed particularly well on boards. The language of a board is of finance which makes it easier for an FD to feel comfortable. But this world of finance is not complex and lawyers are highly qualified professional people. However, there is no room for a legal technician on board.
What are lawyer’s transferable skills?
• Good judgement of people
• Good negotiation skills
• Good analytical skills with an ability to work through complex problems
• Excellent presentation skills
What is the recruitment process?
• Most company’s will use a headhunter to help them define the role. Some chairs look for certain skills around the table. Others, and David takes this approach, look for the softer skills such as:
o strategic thinking
o deep thinkers
o good judgement
o deep interest in the way the business works
o an ability to listen
o an ability to bring perspective
o an ability to work as part of a team
It is valuable and should be fun. You can learn from others and develop a broader perspective other than the world in which you live.
Headhunters are a good source of networking opportunities.
Forums – aspiring NED programmes – all can help.
It does take time and you need patience but you do need to put yourself out there. It is all about who you know and who they know. This informal network is crucial.
Take time to think about your network and who headhunters might find useful. Don’t be afraid to list the big names you’ve worked with or met with or been on a board with. Headhunters like that – though it may feel rather un-British to name drop.
How to you prepare for the board?
• Patience – the process can take 6+ months from start to finish
• Meet other members of the board before taking on the role
• Choose wisely – if still working you probably only have room for one role
• Choose the Chairman wisely. They have a massive influence as to whether it will be a functioning board. Do as much due diligence as you can.
• Accept only when you feel you can make a valuable contribution. You want to look forward to the board. It needs to be enjoyable. It is also important to know when to step down.
• Make sure your CV focuses on why you have been successful at what you do – not what you have done, and then play that out e.g.
o Strategic thinking
o Recognising talent
o Building a team
• When it comes to headhunters they are basically lazy. They like you to be really clear about what peg you are and in which hole your peg will fit. So as much clarity as you can give them makes it easier for them to place you.
• Boards are becoming so specific and narrow in their criteria, gender, talent, characteristics and there are Chairs who specify very clear experience sets. But what they sacrifice in doing that is the broader person. No board needs a lawyer but it is not to do with being a lawyer – it is about your experience.
• It is about understanding your strengths and conveying that.
• Don’t internalise – seek input and help from your colleagues, friends, family and outside organisations to clarify what your strengths are and help define your skills sets.
DEFINE YOUR PEG!