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What is a Non-Executive Director and how do you get there?

by JON WHITE July 21, 2017

The part a non-executive director (NED) plays within a company intrigues employers and prospective employees alike. At Freshminds we have seen these roles become more desirable as individuals choose juggling several consulting or interim roles over having one full-time job. This is also twinned with a wave of new start-ups and smaller businesses realising that they don’t have a NED and thinking it might be a useful person to have – if you excuse the pun – ‘on board’.  

But what does it actually mean to be in a Non-Executive Director job on a day-to-day basis?

Broadly speaking, a NED sits on the board, examining efficiency and offering suggestions for how to better fulfil the aims of the organisation. They are often the person who nurtures and provides wisdom behind the scenes as well as bringing fresh ideas to the table.  Someone in this position will hopefully ensure that all is as it should be and decisively make changes if needed without being overly controlling. All of these qualities can mean real, tangible added value for an organisation.

A NED role, whilst possibly providing a small steady stream of income, more importantly can complement an individual’s skill set, raise career profiles, and provide an opportunity to develop and learn unique capabilities – not to mention fulfilling any philanthropic desires.

Indeed, acting in such a capacity can really aid a person’s career as it adds an increased level of gravitas and can benefit the day to day work adding a higher level strategic overlay that the day job sometimes might not provide the scope for.

What a NED Needs

  • The NED should hopefully provide a fresh perspective to the rest of the board and in part act as neutral conduit between the board and their employees.

  • A good NED should have a high EQ and be very good at evaluating people’s characteristics and their agendas quickly and thoroughly without the need for overt statements or any accidental ruffling of feathers – then subsequently help to determine and revise agendas to best suit all involved.

  • Inspiring belief in stakeholders and a fluid approach to managing all types of people both within and without board meetings also makes things lot easier.  Ultimately, nothing that happens at board meetings should come as a surprise to the NED or throw them or the board off balance. They should be duly prepared and in the loop with all parties before a board meeting comes to pass. Thus if everything is running smoothly a board meeting should essentially be pleasantly uneventful.

  • Above all, the NED should be guided by professional concern for the best interests of the shareholders in the long term as well as in the immediate future.  A level headed, judicious authority. Though that said, a willingness to take considered risks based on actionable analysis is also important.

  • Being unafraid to address the elephant in the room in a considered and mature manner and as a result being able to work around any organisational changes in order to reshape unhealthy or unproductive situations. The NED should be able to do this with consummate diplomacy and a helicopter overview of all the circumstances involved.

  • Aside from a nuanced understanding of the company culture and strategic aims there is the dryer, but equally important need to have complete ongoing familiarity with all financial documentation, legal paperwork, regulation and liabilities of a business. This attention to detail is vital. A really strong NED will be fully cognizant of even the personal situations of the execs, knowledgeable of the board minutes and be viewing the agendas and records of board meetings as far in advance as possible.

Potential Pitfalls

The first three months are the honeymoon period and, if basic compatibility is in any doubt, then the marriage between the individual and the company should be ‘annulled’ before that span of time is up – everyone needs to be honest about fit from the get go, to avoid prolonged bad feeling from extending too far.

The NED, when embedded within a business must stay on their toes. If an exec is seen to be trying to brush lightly over a topic or skip around a subject, it should be duly noted and scrutinised by the NED. As a neutral observer it is here that an observant NED can often nip in the bud potentially damaging situations.

How to Get There

  • The good news is that previous stints as a NED are not a must. In fact, c.75% of NED roles don’t require prior experience.

  • For those seeking to familiarise themselves with the skill set, academy trusts can be a really good, if unpaid, stepping stone into the world of the NED.

  • Successful targeting is also key; is there a specific organisation that you would like to be a NED for?  Make it your business to find out what gaps you could uniquely fill and then make sure that the organisation sees what you see.  Successfully and diplomatically presenting yourself as a tailored solution for a target organisation could be half the battle won. 

  • When interviewing for a NED role it is important to set your own agenda and make sure that you are being asked the right questions. When you have a chance at a face-to-face meeting, pay attention, these meetings will likely be highly indicative of how a company operates and give a lot of pointers as to how well aligned you are to the needs and interests of the position. 

Although Freshminds does not currently actively place NEDs, our extensive network has been responsible for more than a few connections made over the years that have led to people being installed as very successful NEDs. It is a world that continues to run in parallel to our work, especially at the executive level as the two very obviously go hand in hand.

As such we are always very happy to refer and suggest introductions as in our experience these sorts of roles often appear via a serendipitously timed coffee conversation rather than a full blown search process!


Jon White

Jon White

Head of the Experienced and Executive Hire team


Jon leads the team to help partner businesses to find the top experienced or executive level talent for commercial and strategic roles.


Interested in finding out more about Non-Executive Director roles, either as advice or to hire? Get in touch with Jon to discuss how Freshminds could help. 

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