Experiences from inside the board room. What makes a great non-executive director?

What makes a great non executive director

I have sat on numerous boards over the past ten years and have dealt with thousands of non-executive directors; some I admire greatly.

Whenever I run a seminar or am interviewed by media companies on “what makes a great non-executive director?” I often have different answers as my view changes over time but here are the core skills and expertise that I believe makes great non-executive directors:

  1. I believe that to be an exceptional non-executive director, you should have experienced success as a business (wo)man or have been a leader within an organisation that has been successful. The ability to share success and that winning feeling with a board is something that helps non-executives in their duties.
  2. “It isn’t all about you!” If you have sat in a board meeting for hours, listening to the same voice, you will know that this approach is not a winning formula for any non-executive. Great non-executive directors realise that they are there to help and support the management team; it is about THEM not you!
  3. Get the balance right. Know when to challenge and likewise, when not to challenge. I would say that this is the most difficult skill for any non-executive director but one that is essential.
  4. Always focus on the four key pillars that make a great non-executive:
    1. Risk
    2. People
    3. Strategy
    4. Performance
  5. Do not become tied to one shareholder. It is a simple mistake that many NEDs make and one that can bring jeopardy to the boardroom. Always remember that a great non-executive director will represent ALL the shareholders’ interests, not just that of the CEO or the shareholder admire the most!

As with all exceptional and successful directors (executive or non-executive), there are some skills which many NEDs lack and that really set apart the great from the rest. Asking tough and intrusive questions at the boardroom table can be a fine line to walk’ after all, in private companies, the job of the non-executive is in the hands of the rest of the members and of course, the CEO/business owner who can quite easily dispense of their services! However, the art form of being a “critical friend” is one that really does make a difference.

Finally, I would argue that the very best non-executive directors really “get under the bonnet” of the businesses in which they sit. This doesn’t mean working in a retail store or donning a boiler suit and putting in a 12 hour night shift! It means speaking to core team leaders and supervisors and seeing a different perspective – not just the one from top down one!

Like all great leaders, the non-executive director that understands business from the bottom-up as well as the top-down will add real value to any company board.


Ian Wright VirtualNonExecs

Ian Wright is the Founder and CEO of VirtualNonExecs.com and has worked with 100s of companies to appoint non-executives and chairs.  He sits on the boards of three privately held companies as non-executive and has had multiple businesses that have gone on to sell to private equity and trade buyers.

VirtualNonExecs is a membership network and all members receive consultations with Ian personally.  He works with all members to craft the perfect non-executive director CV and is always available to speak to members to give advice and offer support on the non-executive director journey.


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