The 8 personal traits of 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 enable them to add value and that, in turn, drive their board careers. As a professional who wants a board appointment, it is beneficial that you recognise what these attributes are so that you also can build a board career.

What makes a NED successful? It is often not what you might think

To begin with, 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.

A hard-nosed white, grey, old male accountant, lawyer or ex-CEO of a listed company? That is what everyone thinks of as a successful NED should be. 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.

If 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. Instead, it is their style and approach that makes them effective in their roles, which, in turn, makes them more desirable and appointable than their competitors. 

What successful NEDs have in common

Having worked with thousands and thousands of NEDs – aspiring and existing and having interviewed thousands of NED candidates I think there are eight qualities that define successful board members.

  1. Smarts – Successful NEDs are rarely the most intelligent 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.
  2. Reflective and thoughtful – they ask the tough questions and offer considered advice based on sound judgment. They maintain integrity, have strong principles and insist that the right thing is done for the Board.
  3. Communicate – in a way that enables them to influence without appearing dictatorial. It comes from a breadth of experience, good listening skills, and knowing when to contribute and when to keep quiet (the latter they do more than the former). They articulate complex ideas clearly and courteously transfer knowledge in a congenial manner. They know that small p politics count more than grandstanding.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Connected – they recognise relationships mean knowledge and that this experience allows them to advise on a range of issues.
  7. Get stuff done – they are reliable, step in when needed, and go to greater lengths than their NED peers.
  8. 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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