The FT once said that a Non-Executive Director (NED) is “a task for which no one is qualified.” Perhaps they were only being partly tongue in cheek. After all, the mix of attributes and skills required is complex – and seemingly contradictory.

How do you combine ‘independent and objective’, with ‘passionate and engaging’? What is the perfect combination of ‘financial, technical and real life business experience’? It can be a bewildering challenge for anyone applying to be a NED.

However, we’ve worked with some of the leading NED headhunters. Here we can reveal the seven key factors to consider before you start searching for your first NED role:

The skill set is different to that of an executive. Your current CV may demonstrate you already have some qualities required to be a NED, such as industry knowledge and a wealth of experience. But a non-exec role is much more about strategic governance than operational management. Boards want someone who can guide, steer and advise them. The ability to drive change is more important than boosting the bottom line.

Get the balance right. Your CV needs to show enough detail (with facts and figures) to prove your ability, without becoming boring. Think scope and scale rather than daily activity.

Don’t be afraid to show your battle scars. A record of achievement with high flying companies obviously looks impressive. Equally, Board level experience of a poor performing company, or the volatility of business cycles, can demonstrate you’ve overcome challenges.

Boards are looking for breadth and variety of experience. If you’ve been with one company for a long time, look at your outside activities, such as working on a charity Board. Or gain fresh perspective by volunteering for roles on working groups within your industry. Networking and personal branding are also key; so look for opportunities to make presentations or write articles. A carefully crafted social media presence (particularly on LinkedIn) can also enhance your visibility and credibility.

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You don’t have to wait until you’re retired. It’s lonely at the top and many CEOs welcome advice from current executives who are up to date and on a similar journey. Of course, you need to commit the time to be pro-active and add value. That means getting to know the company by visiting branches or factories. You’ll also need to prepare for and attend up to eight Board meetings a year.  It is well worthwhile checking out the range of NED courses from the IOD to gain practical tips and networking opportunities.

Experiences other than CFO are increasingly valued. Financial and technical skills will always be in demand at NED level. But companies are also looking to increase the diversity of their Boards. In part, this is because they need people with expertise in running complex, decentralised organisations. An organisation undergoing digital transformation will appreciate someone with the IT expertise to guide the debate. Likewise, companies often say people are important but, until recently, we have rarely seen many HR people at Board level.

Chemistry is key. Boards are looking for that right combination of curiosity and courage to challenge, alongside a supportive personality with the intellect to think, consider and advise. We suggest you look for NED roles with organisations where you have empathy and an understanding of what they’re trying to achieve. Remember, this is not about being an assertive leader; you don’t want the CEO to see you as a threat. Instead, your job as a NED is to support the Board by providing reassurance and wise counsel.

If you’re considering your first NED role, it’s likely that your CV will need a major overhaul.  Almost all the headhunting firms and big organisations now use applicant-tracking systems (ATS). They will type their key words into this giant, searchable database. So you need to consider SEO alongside making your best business case and building a personal brand.

You can find more advice in this IOD article on how to write the perfect NED CV.   

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