bckr | Start Early: Advice On Your NED Career From Mark Chambers.
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Start Early: Advice On Your NED Career From Mark Chambers.

Start Early: Advice On Your NED Career From Mark Chambers.

This week we welcomed Mark Chambers to BCKR – Mark has combined numerous non-executive roles with his challenging legal career. Here is a summary of what he had to say.

First, Mark would really encourage you to take on a role in a not-for-profit early – while you are still in your full time career. If you are doing something like this on the side it makes you a more rounded individual, it positions you better for the transition you might want to make later in life from executive to non-executive and above all – it’s fun!

Mark has been an in-house lawyer for most of his career and for the large part managing executive teams. For his current role with HSBC he has finally taken off his legal hat with half a mind on what he might do in the future.

His non-executive career has run alongside his full-time career, starting at Westminster University where he joined a committee and later went on to serve on the board. He then joined WWF (where he stayed for 7 years) where he chaired the audit committee and the committee to build their new HQ.
He has now taken on a new role as Chair of AmRef – Africa’s leading health charity.

As Chair his responsibilities are:
• To oversee the board’s strategy and make sure there are robust plans to implement it
• To ensure that the strategy is well executed
• To define the relationship between the board and management
o Making sure the board are provided with the right materials and that the right discussions take place to ensure that the board is effectively steering the organisation
With regard to your contribution – don’t underestimate the time you will need to spend as an advocate for the organisation you represent.

The behind the scenes time is far more significant than the time spent attending board meetings.
You are there to contribute – not as a lawyer (they can buy that advice in when needed) – but to share your breadth of experience. As a lawyer you will have wide experience of a range of challenging circumstances. Charities are like businesses and need help to run them as such.

You are there:
• to be firm with management but not dogmatic
• to be a catalyst for change
• to give people hope and encouragement
• to ask the key questions.

Lawyers aren’t very good about blowing their own trumpets about the obvious skills they possess and use on a daily basis. Your instincts are good, as is your ability to distil what is important out of any given situation and to identify the way forward. Risk management is second nature to you.

Why do people not want lawyers on their boards?
Many chairmen will have had past experience of lawyers, on or off a board, who have displayed the negative characteristics of some lawyers and these memories stick!

Why do the charity stuff?
• Giving your time is a significant contribution (time = money)
• It is the opportunity to work with great people. Boards tend to be made up of an eclectic and diverse group which broadens your network
• It can be stretching and challenging
• You can find ways of adding value which aren’t always obvious
• Your contribution is actually appreciated (you don’t often get much of that in your day job)
• It will make you a better leader
• The positive enthusiasm of the people you work alongside is emotionally enriching

How to go about getting a role.
• The Guardian online
• Headhunters
• Don’t shy away from making a direct approach to the Chief Executive of an organisation that really interests you. Most are more than willing to have a cup of coffee and many charities won’t have the resources necessarily to use headhunters.
• You may also get on a board by first getting a role on a committee
Think about how to present yourself. Spend time thinking about what you can offer the organisation – where you can really add value.

Will it be your business experience or perhaps your corporate connections, which will help with their donor programme?

Choose carefully though. Make sure you are not there to make up for an executive shortfall. Look for strong executives within the organisation.

How did you take the first step into WWF?
Mark found the University route to be a good way in. He started off as a zoologist so WWF was always appealing and there was a corporate connection which enabled him to get in touch with them fairly easily. People are very open to having a cup of coffee. It is not like getting through the client door. He always wanted to make to give back in some way and he really thought WWF would be a fun way to do that.

The transition between executive and non-executive careers can be awkward but the environment for those with a legal background could not be better, with press ever ready to criticise charities, and growing recognition that charities are businesses. There is a greater appreciation of the similarities between charities and corporations. They need to work together and lawyers have a unique insight into how these different organisations work. A lawyer will bring a multi-faceted approach. It is not about your transactional history. You need to sell your broader skills.

• Supporting clients through strategic and operational challenges
• Regulators and how to deal with them
• Internal compliance programmes
• Governance agendas
• Risk management across organisations
• Fundraising – your network

You need to work out how to demonstrate that breadth.
To get through the door initially you need to demonstrate your passion for the organisation. This is a harder hurdle to overcome with headhunters, where you really need an introduction.
Charities can see your value and need your skills around their board tables.

It is a good idea to have two CVs. One for the executive role and one for the non-exec.
Think about getting on a committee first. It still gives you the non-exec experience.
Decide which sectors you are interested in. It has got to be in something that you care about.

Even if you prepare and don’t get the role you are one step further along in the process with a headhunter and you are probably more informed about what you are looking for.