The days of free lunches, sleepy afternoons in a comfortable board room chair and money for nothin are long gone! Taking a role as a non-executive director isn;t a breeze and for those who think it’s a pocket money job are mistaken; it brings with it huge responsibilities. You’ve been brought onto the board to fulfil a role, and whatever that role might be, there are certain qualities that you’ll be expected to have.
Arguably, the most important of these qualities is perhaps the least expected.
Why is this a vital prerequisite for a non-exec? But surely the board will have its CEO showing leadership [hopefully], and what about the old adage “too many cooks spoil the broth”? Let’s consider what it is we mean exactly by that often misunderstood term Leadership.
One of the qualities expected of an effective leader is vision. Not only that, though. Many people might have strong and clear ideas of where the company should be headed. But a true leader will show the ability to share the vision and to engender an enthusiasm for making the vision become a reality. And that is exactly the sort of thing you should be doing as a non-exec: aligning your particular skills-set [the reason you were drafted in in the first place] with the direction the company is heading in, and communicating it clearly and enthusiastically.
Which takes us to another leadership quality: trust. There’s little point sharing your vision and generating support unless the ones you work with trust you and your expertise. A non-exec is an expert – it’s your raison d’etre in the organisation – and your contributions should be seen as such. The skills and knowledge you bring to the board aren’t set in aspic: they will continually need to be updated and refined, whether it be maintaining a current and targeted contact list, keeping a weather eye on the latest export regulations for your company’s goods, or any of the thousand other reasons you’re on the board in the first place. Sharpening your expertise and sharing it with the board will ensure your input is welcomed and valued.
A clear and shared vision, trust in your expertise – vital qualities in the art of non-executive leadership. But they count for nothing if you lack the one quality that underpins the rest: interpersonal skills. Napoleon is reputed to have stated:
An army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions led by a sheep.
Although there’s some truth in this – strong leaders can get the best out of even the most mediocre – there’s also an element of unreality. Lions and sheep aren’t exactly a harmonious partnership, and the mobilisation of sheep would depend largely on how loudly and ferociously the lion roared! And what if one night the lion got hungry…?
No. The most effective leaders in business aren’t the loudest or the fiercest – they are those who interact well with others and provide motivation that springs more from the first two qualities we mentioned – shared vision and trust – rather than fear of being humiliated or eaten.
As a non-executive member of the board, developing high-level interpersonal skills is essential. You’ll need to know your fellow board members, understand what makes them tick and how they can be enthused by what you have to say. You’ll also need to treat them with respect, learn how to listen rather than hear, and accept that at times they’ll question your input.
It’s how you respond, even in the face of sometimes hostile questioning, that will show you value challenge while at the same time dealing with it!
Ian Wright is the CEO and Founder of VirtualNonExecs.com. Ian is currently non-executive director at Alpha Vet International (the UK’s largest veterinary CPD platform), Viddyoze Limited (A worldwide video creation and animation business) and he was previously Non-Executive Chairman of Careermap (the UK’s leading apprenticeship job board for 16-19 year olds). He is also an investor in multiple tech businesses.