Common Question: What makes a successful NED?

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Irrespective of the industry or sector they operate within, successful Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) are united by some common traits – a range of personal and professional qualities that enables them to add individual value and that in turn drive their board careers. As an aspiring or existing NED who wants more appointments, it is beneficial that you recognise and work to develop some of these attributes.

Let me shed some light on what makes a NED successful

Before I do, it is probably worth defining what I mean by ‘successful’. My role is to help people gain board appointments so it will not be surprising that for the purposes of this article I will define success in this light – the attributes that make them more appointable than other NEDs.

Not what you might think

A hard-nosed white, grey, male accountant, lawyer or ex CEO of a listed company? That is what everyone thinks of as a successful NED. Not anymore, and not for some time. Whilst plenty of NEDs still fit this bill this does not guarantee their success. Success is built on other factors.

Not ‘male, stale or pale’ … then what? When it comes to defining what successful NEDs have in common it is often not based on what experience they have. Rather, it is their style and approach that makes them effective in their roles which in turn, makes them more desirable/appointable than their competitors. 

Here are my thoughts on what I think successful NEDs have in common

Successful NEDs are rarely the smartest people in the room. Smarts help of course and whilst your professional experience will allow you to contribute it is your softer skills that will drive your effectiveness.

They are reflective and thoughtful – they ask the tough questions and offer considered advice based on sound judgement. They maintain integrity, have strong principles and insist that the right thing is done for the Board.

They communicate – in a way that enables them to influence without appearing dictatorial. It comes from a breadth of experience, good listening skills, knowing when to contribute and when to keep quiet (the latter they do more than the former). They articulate complex ideas clearly, courteously transfer knowledge in a congenial manner. They know that small p politics count more than grandstanding. 

They are balanced –  they have strong viewpoints but put aside any personal drivers, short-term considerations and favouritism in favour of genuinely serving the board of the organisation they are appointed to. 

They are passionate – not a giddy enthusiasm but a genuine desire to contribute, to see the organisation grow or deliver better outcomes to its stakeholders or clients. 

They are well connected – they recognise relationships mean knowledge and that this experience allows them to advise on a range of issues.

They get stuff done – they are reliable, step in when needed, go to greater lengths than their NED peers.

They work hard – harder than anyone else. They read every page, engage, network, delve deep, spend time researching and love doing so.  

What does that mean for you?

Gaining a board appointment is much more about fit and passion than it is about skills and experience. If you don’t have the former, the latter doesn’t matter. Successful NEDs have worked this out and that is what makes them outstanding and, therefore, appointable than their competitors. It should give you encouragement that, none of the traits listed above is unique. Most of us have them and if you don’t they can be developed. These traits combined with a simple and easy to implement process will provide the focus and results you are looking for if you want a board appointment or to develop a board career. 

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world

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