A pragmatic retrospective that drives future success

By Diane Cheesebourgh, NED at Mercia Portfolio business, LiveLead

I started my non-exec career in 2016 with a pro bono role while still working as an Executive.  I was already planning a commercial career, so I decided not to look for Trustees, School Governor or NHS roles but, instead, opted for a business focused on not-for-profit (NFP). I joined LeedsBid, which has a phenomenal CEO, a brilliant Chair and other NEDs to learn from. And critically, I could see how I could add value.

At this point my CV read: “Banker by trade, with non-exec experience, a successful career at C- suite across a range of industries, each with common themes around tech, market disruption, turnaround, fast growth, turning strategy into reality in all situations from plc, private, entrepreneurial and family owned business. I have been able to identify and construct brilliant teams, who have enjoyed significant enterprise value growth.” So really, a history of success with a phenomenal network; so I had to ask: where’s that tap on the shoulder?

I left my executive career two years later, in 2018, and I am now ‘plural’ as a Chair or NED on six Boards in Private, NFP, FCA regulated and PE. Including the brilliant, Mercia-backed, LiveLead, the sales lead service.

Being a non-exec has been a whole career change. From the outside, and especially if you’ve experienced ‘one of those’ NEDs, it can look like an easy couple of days a month reusing the skills you’ve honed over years of successful decision making. But in my experience, if you are going to do it well and support the executive team to deliver the results, it’s also about recognising the need to change, and that’s been challenging, frustrating and rewarding in equal measure.

So what have been my top learnings?

Skills and experience from a successful and varied Exec career are critical, but ‘unlearning’ is more so; you’re not running the business, the exec and CEO are. Your job is to do everything possible to help them to do this without undermining, ‘policing’ or stealing the limelight. The key is to do this in a way that adds real value, clarity and focus, helps the Exec develop their thinking and strategy, and compliantly delivers all stakeholders’ goals; which, by the way, can be very different. Working to align the shareholders, reaching an agreement on those goals and acting as a bridge between the board and the shareholders, are a constant focus.

The best NEDs are curious, ask the right and supportive questions, offer guidance (notice the ‘offer’), influence without dominating, negotiate, tell and sometimes, particularly in start-up/PE when resources are tight (and they’ve agreed it with the MD), just roll up their sleeves and ‘do’.

The best NEDs step back and see through the clutter, provide real insight and challenge, act as a bridge and get all stakeholders on the same page, regardless of size or sector or maturity of the business.

Large companies and the Public Sector are more likely to have a plan, a structured role and induction, know what they want to use you for, and the time commitment is generally closer to advertised.

Smaller, high-growth or turnaround companies, including venture capital-/private equity-backed, may never have had a NED and don’t know what to expect or how to get the best from you as a resource. First-time teams often need real hands on support to quickly deliver the expected pace of change so the commitment can be much more than two days a month when you first start or when issues occur and of course, on an exit event.

With VE/PE you are not just in a business, you are an investment, so understanding what the shareholders, investors and execs need to make relationships work and the business fly is key.  Honestly, it sometimes feels like everyone is speaking a completely different language so brush up on those translation, negotiation and communication skills!

Put real effort into getting to know the business and each stakeholder’s goals, internalise and understand what that means for expected deliverables, common goals, targets and quick wins, and the actions and expectations that make the right NED/Chair for this company.

Early reporting is important, particularly with privately owned or after an institutional investment. Is access to accurate, regular management information that transparently shows what’s happening with their investment available? A ‘Friday Flash’ quickly becomes a pivotal email and generally elicits calls with the investors and CEO. There should be no surprises (good or bad) at the board meetings!

Get the right KPIs and regular reports in place. Board reports, MI and reporting should be crisp, concise, and have good visuals to spot those operating and strategic tweaks that add £££. This is one of those areas where your Exec experience can really help define pivotal KPIs that drive the business forward, rather than just add some nice slides to the monthly report.

Finance, strategy, delivery, reporting and CxO development. In the first weeks I do a mini internal business review (IBR) or finance review immediately followed by providing the detail or planning on the strategy and growth plans. That may seem overkill but, in many instances, it’s not been done before. Understanding the detail, while not being in it, means you can ask the right supportive and challenging questions, bring real insight that improves the quality of decision making, increases revenue and EBITDA and keeps the team on plan.

Understand and build relationships with the entrepreneur, Exec, wider team and the investors. Then agree where and how your skills and network are of best use.

In addition, here’s the top five pieces of advice I’ve had from my Chair mentors.

  1. Do your due diligence, stay informed and, once you’re in post, be active in the company and the network. If the company doesn’t do better with you in it, then you have to ask yourself why.
  2. Religiously do the prep work. What are those incisive, supportive but challenging questions that will really shine a light, positively impact performance and develop the team? Which of your skills or knowledge is of best use right now?
  3. Challenge yourself; after every meeting, call, interaction. Ask what value did I add? What could I have done better? What are the next steps?
  4. Know your limits. How many roles can you do justice to? Is it one, four, seven? Doing one role well is hard work and the more you have, the more demanding it is. You have to know the details of every company, market and trend, see the bigger picture, add value and be available. You need to be sure that when you are required to spend more time in one company, you can do that without short changing your other roles.
  5. Maintain your independence; you really can’t rely on that role or salary. You have to be able to ask the difficult questions, hold people to account and always do the right thing for the business, and in some circumstances that means moving on.

And finally, stay informed. You carry all the same liabilities as any Executive Director. Staying informed allows proper governance, focus and clarity and that allows the business and team to focus on and take advantage of growth.

OK I know that’s technically six but thought it was worth it. Then it’s just about having a great time delivering…