Re-posted from the Guardian Thursday 4 October 2012
Many professionals with portfolio careers become non-executive directors to gain extra experience and income. Robert Wright discusses how to secure a position and balance the workload
Over the last decade there has been a growth in ‘portfolio careers’ – a living derived from having multiple simultaneous jobs on a part-time, flexible, consulting or interim basis.
Those juggling such careers cite the positives that derive from having exciting variety or the better work-life balance and greater flexibility afforded by being their own boss. What is not often mentioned is the constant strain of keeping all these plates spinning while securing the next piece of work; a magic trick some seem to achieve effortlessly while others toil and sweat.
Often a useful way some portfolioists derive a more reliable income stream is by including one or two remunerated non-executive director (NED) positions. Such roles not only benefit them by providing a regular salary, but also help develop skills, profile and credibility in other lines of work.
NEDs sit on the boards of many public, private and not-for-profit organisations, working as a ‘critical friend’ scrutinising the organisation’s performance and offering strategic input and advice to the executive team. How often they meet and what duties they are required to perform varies between organisations.
NEDs can, however, expect at least a monthly commitment to attend meetings (having read the necessary board reports), plus further meetings if appointed to a sub-committee dealing with specific issues such as remuneration and finance. They may be required to be present at public events, such as an opening of a new building, and some boards also provide training and team development away-days that will require a time commitment (sometimes overnight).
Janet Dean, for instance, runs a housing and regeneration consultancy, is chair of a drugs and alcohol abuse treatment service provider, deputy chair of governors for a university and NED of an NHS primary care trust. She aims for a mix of three days a week of interim project commitments with two days as an NED – a mix she admits is sometimes hard to achieve and maintain.
The opportunity to connect with an organisation on a long-term basis as it develops and goes on a journey has made Janet appreciate the dynamics and tensions that can exist between boards and executive teams. This has benefited her interim project work because clients see her as someone who understands the strategic – not just operational – needs and can speak to all the key stakeholders.
Breaking through into the non-executive world and achieving the first post can be tricky. Often people wanting to be NEDs face the experience/opportunity catch-22 that many first-time job seekers and graduates encounter – can’t get a job because without the experience but can’t get the experience without the job. Boards appointing new NEDs are often looking to find people that already have experience of how a board operates and know how a good NED can make a difference.
A good way to start is to seek out quasi-board positions, such as sitting on strategic partnership teams above projects being delivered by organisations in joint-venture partnerships. This will give you experience of what it’s like to offer strategic input and vision while not having direct executive responsibility for the project.
You could also secure a non-remunerated NED role. These posts are usually found in public, not-for-profit or third sector organisations such social landlords, charities and community groups. They are a great way to get a foothold in the non-executive market and prove you have the skills to be an active board member.
Many NEDs find that once they have that first board-level role under their belt, they can access further non-executive opportunities more easily. They are more firmly on the radar of organisations seeking new board members as well as other interim or portfolio work.
Andy Brown, a former executive of The Burton Group, Boots, Sky TV and ASDA now acts as a business consultant while also being an NED for various companies and a member of Yorkshire Cancer Research’s board. “There’s no question that acting as an NED gives you a bit of extra credibility”, he said, and although, “it seems to be quite tricky to get into the NED game in the first place, working with [organisations] at board level on strategy and other pretty sensitive things shows others you are useful to have around”.
Andy’s advice for those seeking a first step into the world of NEDs is: “in the first instance, be persistent and keep at it [and] once you are up and running … keep your different things separate – I use a number of web tools to keep my papers in the cloud and manage my time.”
It should also be noted that boards will sometimes seek out new members with certain skills and backgrounds that may be required by the organisation at that point in time. For instance, a non-executive board member with a finance background may be of more interest if there is an audit or executive salary review due. The NEDs won’t be expected to roll their sleeves up and help deliver operational challenges but they will be expected to ask the right questions of the executive team to safeguard the health and performance of the organisation on behalf of its staff, stakeholders and customers.
Taking on a NED role while also maintaining a portfolio career can be a tricky balancing act. Boards will have established and non-negotiable meeting dates, which you will be expected to commit to, and this can create tension when clients come calling with new or extra work. Many NEDs talk of the need to find a ‘balance of commitment’. They are regularly tested by the dilemma of accepting another NED position that can provide a steady income, intellectual interest and a bit of kudos while also holding out for that next big (and possibly more lucrative) chunk of interim or project work that will require blood, sweat, tears. But if that balance can be achieved the benefits to a career portfolioist can be very rewarding.