Ian Meakins – The Chief Executive’s Perspective
This week we were delighted to welcome Ian Meakins to talk to our BCKR members. Having started his career as an advisory consultant Ian then switched into business working in both PE and listed companies including Travelex and Alliance Unichem. He finished his executive career as Chief Executive of the Wolseley Group at which point he made the transition into a NED career. He currently Chairs Rexel, a global electrical distribution company listed in Paris and TLN, a Dutch publishing distribution company.
Here is a summary of Ian’s very practical advice on how to go about getting your first NED role.
What makes a good NED?
- Genuine interest in the business – use intelligence!
You need to invest time/do your homework. Sample the product or visit a site.
- Asks great questions – thoughtful/penetrating/constructive
There is no need to have the answers. Good NEDs ask great questions. That is the most valuable thing you can contribute. E.g. if it’s a service company – ask whether they measure service, how they do it, what do they do with the information gleaned
- Industrial experience is not essential
Don’t get put off. Lawyers are good at getting difficult subjects on the table
Values – Integrity/ Results/ Self-aware! Put the company first and leave your ego at the door.
Ask good well thought through questions but don’t blather!
Ian believes that lawyers can be a great asset to a board but they need to become better at packaging up their experience to demonstrate their ‘commercial’ experience.
Lawyers have managed businesses – you need to sell yourself on this basis!
- sales pipeline
- international businesses
- difficult clients
- managing lots of people
- winning clients and customers
- difficult employment situations
The process and how to overcome the hurdles
- You do need to get in front of the senior headhunters – they are the gate keepers. Increasingly even for PE backed companies. All the headhunters now have a PE non-exec practice. Use them to get into the PE ground, as this is simpler than trying to get interviews straight with the PE firms. Most PE firms are broadening out their thoughts to being more open with non-specific industry experience
- Position yourself as a keen commercial individual; ask sensible questions about the business
Build your sponsors, before you start the journey.
- Old clients, old colleagues, CEOs and Chairman who can vouch for you.
- Don’t be shy – they will want to support – you must ask
- You need to train them in your CV so they know what to say. Give them 3 key facts
- Get them to write to headhunters and chairman saying how great you are, being proactive.
Get the role then add value
- Boards are risk averse – give them data to reassure them
- Two groups to please on the board each with very different criteria
– NEDs and Chairman wanting challenge, good questions, values and teamwork
– CEOs wanting compliance, less challenge, agreement and support.
Remember this through the interview process and in working out what to do thereafter.
Practice with your sponsors before you go live
- Lawyers’ careers rarely involve being interviewed so they tend not to be very good at it. Practice is vital.
Evaluate all options in parallel
- Push in parallel down the non-exec paths.
- Getting your first role is critical. Don’t worry about size, charity/commercial.
- Don’t be too picky about first role as it is important to get into the club. But a low risk one to learn with is better.
Watch out for ‘hairy’ options
- A weak chair can be a problem to you going forward too.
- Do be careful – your reputation is your asset so avoid joining a bad board
- Look at the PE world – they are often looking to move the business into the
Be really clear on your criteria – what are you looking for
- Be clear in your own mind about what you want out of the next stage. Continuing involvement in a business, doing a good thing for society, making easy money, bettering the world through better governance.
- If you are clear you are likely to be more successful
How do you choose your sponsors?
You need to make sure they are people you have a good relationship with.
If they have a good reputation in their own right that is even better.
Your clients are really good options for sponsors
What makes a good NED in your opinion?
The less strong NEDs have an absolute prejudice about the answer. They can’t engage in any solution other than their answer. The best are those who simply ask the big open questions. They want to impact change, not just being bloody minded. They need to be strong individuals, holding the right issues in the room.
Do you think being on a charity board helps?
It is absolutely better than not having any previous board experience. If one of your sponsors chairs the board event better as they will have seen you in action and can make specific recommendations.
Is particular expertise relevant?
Most boards will want a couple of experts but certainly won’t want a board full of experts.
You are not there to give the executives the answers. They are looking for catalysts.