Singing like a canary: The value of the non-executive director

the value non execs bring to the board room

At one time, when coal miners needed to test the quality of air deep underground, they employed canaries, who were more susceptible to the presence of toxic gases than humans. When a canary stopped singing, it was a sure sign of danger ahead.

That was all well and good in coal mining [unless of course you were a canary] but in today’s business world we need other, less feathery means of gauging dangers ahead.

This is where a Non-Executive presence on the board can be a real asset to any company (start-up or established) brimming with foresight and ambition.

A non-exec’s role is crucial to a company’s development and market-profile. He or she is there to bring a greater strategic vision to the way the company plans to develop. Because non-execs have wide-ranging experience of launch strategies, business growth, investment appeal and marketing scenarios, they have a clearer sense of pitfalls and obstacles along the way. It would indeed be a myopic CEO who failed to see the benefits of such a role.

Canaries were fine and doubtless helped save many lives, but their influence was limited, to say the least. For instance, a canary smelling carbon monoxide could do nothing but continue to breathe – until its singing became a feeble squawk. It wasn’t capable of saying to the miner carrying it, ‘That way’s full of danger, but if you follow my advice and go in that direction, you’ll find clean, fresh air where you can dig to your heart’s content.’

Nor could a canary say, ‘Hey, I have a friend who knows of other pit roads where the coal is actually cannel coal, of a far better quality than this.’

But that’s the sort of thing [metaphorically speaking!] you’d hear a non-executive director say before sharing a powerful list of contacts, whose value to the company’s growth could be inestimable. Developing new contacts, weaving a more intricate and powerful network that will become a multi-faceted support system, is a consequence of NED involvement and a sure-fire way of raising the company’s market profile.

It’s common knowledge that canaries would sing merrily even as they were being carried to their doom. Now that was a sign not of their carefree commitment to the cause but of their stupidity.

Now, Non-Execs don’t need to sing to show their passion, their commitment to the company. But perhaps passion is one of the most elusive qualities to discover, share and channel in the right direction. A business, especially a start-up, needs passion the way miners needed oxygen. Strategy and vision are highly valued qualities, to be sure, but the thing that drives a company forward by harnessing these two characteristics is a belief in the product and a desire to succeed, the constituent features of what we call passion.

It’s an interesting footnote to history that canaries ceased to be used as safety guides only as recently as 1986, when CO detectors replaced them. They served a purpose but were very much passive participants in an essential screening strategy. NEDs, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly more important as companies see the wide range of benefits they bring with them.

Just don’t expect them to sing for their supper.


Ian Wright VirtualNonExecs
Ian Wright VirtualNonExecs

Ian Wright is the CEO of is the UK’s premier Non-Executive Director platform, connecting NEDs for free with thousands of companies and allowing members to monetise their contact lists by introducing executive candidates to companies willing to pay a fee for their knowledge and candidate due diligence.


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