Transitioning from CEO to NED


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In my many past years as a Board and Executive Recruiter I have had countless conversations with both CEO’s looking for their first independent Non Executive role and with Chair/Nomination Committees considering CEOs for their boards.

The conversations I have with each party are usually quite different but inevitably the questions of Can they/I make the transition effectively from ‘CEO’ to a ‘Non Executive Director’ is considered. It is a good question to ask but in most cases I find it a moot point in the application process. Let me explain.

The conversations I have with CEO’s that are looking for their first NED role, post or pre a looming, retirement, are often conversations full of urgency and optimism as the CEO looks forward to a continuing chapter of their successful career. In these conversations the first question I ask is always ‘How much board experience do you have?’. Often their reply is – ‘Not much, I have been busy being CEO’ – an understandable response, and, arguably, not a bad one at that from an executive perspective as it shows dedication to the role. However, from a NED appointment perspective this response can be a killer.

It is a killer because post an executive role and looking towards a NED career these CEOs must now compete with Executives or NEDs with existing portfolio careers or simply individuals with current board experience. In this case the question about whether they an handle the transition from a sole decision maker to a role as part of a decision making board less relevant. Instead, what is relevant is their level of board experience – in either an executive or Non Executive capacity.

All things being equal I find that Boards want new board members who have been tried and tested in the boardroom. For this reason the sort conversation I have most (when recruiting a new board member) with Chairs and Nomination Committees is focused around existing board experience. Only, if an applicant does not have this experience then the question of whether they can make the transition to the boardroom is raised.

So, what do I recommend?

For CEOs considering a board career you need to aware that gaining board appointments can be very competitive. You will be competing against more experienced candidates – something you may not be comfortable with so getting yourself fully prepped for the journey ahead is key. You should:

Understand intimately, what you offer a board. In many cases it is a detailed understanding of the sector. It may just as likely be the breadth of connections you bring and the business opportunities that stem from them.

  • Understand how board appointments are made – Adverts, Search Firms, Networks & Direct Approaches (This and more is covered in our Board Appointment Masterclasses)
  • Get your documents in order – A Board CV itself won’t get you the position but it may lose you the opportunity – don’t take the risk.
  • Carve out some time from your executive career to prepare for the next chapter.

If you are a CEO and do not yet have board experience all is not lost. A recently retired/retiring CEO who applies for a board seat (in a relevant industry) can be seen as very appealing. In this case, and if positioned appropriately, the appointing committee/Chair can look favourably on your application by considering: your relevance in the industry; the current networks and connections you might bring; and your understanding of the immediate macro issues at play in running a similar business.

So is the transition from CEO to Non Executive Director that difficult?

If the first critique of you as a CEO is not having any board experience then it can be. So, if board roles are part of your future then don’t wait until retirement to get the experience you need to make that transition as easy as possible. The position needn’t be paid and they needn’t be your dream role but the trade off is that having ‘Non Executive Director’ on your CV can be the difference between success and failure.

David Schwarz, MD & Founder

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