Lessons in Leadership: Heather White, CEO of Boardroom Ready

10 Steps To Securing Your First Non-Executive Director Role

It was brilliant to welcome Heather White, CEO of Boardroom Ready, as our guest at the second session of Grace Blue’s Lessons in Leadership. Heather demystified the question “How do I look for my first Non-Executive Director (NED) role?” and provided valuable insights to get started, and eventually build a portfolio.

Chaired by Sherilyn Shackell, Founder and Global CEO at The Marketing Academy, she began the session by highlighting the importance of bringing CMOs into the boardroom as preparation for them to eventually become CEOs.

“One of the reasons why we are so passionate about CMOs taking that kind of path is that they are C-suites’ superpower. They have the customers’ heartbeat in the palm of their hand, they can test the customers’ blood pressure, but they’re also involved in technology, in data, in insights. That breadth, that bandwidth packaged in one person may be the most powerful influencer in the boardroom bar none. And that’s why we are so passionate about helping CMOs to get there.”

Introducing Heather White as a speaker, Sherilyn explained that “the first step into a Non-Executive Director role is not easy, there is a bit of a science to it. You have to begin to understand the language of the boardroom before you can be even credible enough to step into it”.

Heather started by asking the question “Where are you now?”. This will help you reflect on your personal and professional motivation to develop the stamina required to pursue a new professional path that might take 12 to 18 months to achieve and the resilience to write numerous applications and accept rejections. Heather also encouraged us to analyse our professional journeys and spoke of the importance to identify gaps and look for ways on how to fill these, for example through volunteering. Lastly, she encouraged us to reflect on which barriers we might be facing in securing our first NED role.

Heather drew a 10-step roadmap to achieving your goal and securing your first Non-Executive Director role:

1. Plan early: It might sound obvious but the sooner you start planning your journey to your first NED role, the better. This will take the pressure off you, considering in most cases it might take 12 months to two years to find your first board job. And, you will learn a lot in this first experience which in turn will be helpful to be more focused on finding the second role.

2. Tell everyone: tell everybody that you are looking to become a NED or a trustee – you never know who knows who or who might be married to whom!

3. Networking matters: At the same time, you also need to network by specific industry or sector and by the topic you are looking at. Identify the right decision makers such as CEOs and Chairmen/women, the influencers such as other Non-Executive Directors, search firms and private equity companies and venture capital organisations. A note on private equities: these are usually inundated by candidates who want to join their board as an NED. As private equities are very result driven, they will want to see the value you can bring to them first, before offering you an NED role. Therefore, volunteer knowledge as an advisor and demonstrate how your skillset can deliver value to their organisation before asking for a role.

4. Gain board experience: If you don’t have any board experience, you should look at building this internally or externally to your organisation. Externally could be by becoming a trustee, which is an easier step to do than an NED. Pick carefully the not-for-profit or public sector organisation you want to volunteer with and above all, be strategic. Your selection criteria should be not only based on your passion points or local community but also on the experience you want to gain as a trustee which will eventually help you to create that NED portfolio career that you have in sight. You might also want to volunteer within your organisation, for example on high profile special projects or on the board of a sub-divisional organisation owned by your employer.

5. Find a sponsor or mentor: Find a mentor or a coach such as a well experienced Non-Executive Director. On this, keep in mind to be respectful of their time. When you set up a meeting with them, stick to two or three questions you want to learn. Do so with multiple people and build up your knowledge.

6. Update CV & LinkedIn: Ensure your LinkedIn profile contains the right keywords so that an executive search firm looking to hire an NED can find you through the right filters.

7. Build your knowledge: If you don’t have any prior experience as an NED, you might want to consider pursuing a training course. While a certification won’t guarantee you a role, it might boost your confidence and increase your knowhow to help secure that first crucial role.

8. Think broader: When you have finally be appointed to your first NED role, you will need to be strategic beyond your own function. You will need to think beyond your subject matter expertise and transition your strategic thinking across the entire organisation. To do so, ensure you understand how the business operates across all departments.

9. Modify your language: Ensure you speak knowledgeably beyond your area of expertise.

10. Where are the jobs? Your best bet is to look across four areas: executive search firm specialised in board roles, NED specific job platforms such as Nurole and Dynamic Boards in the UK, LinkedIn, which gives you the opportunity to set up alerts, and most importantly look within your network. According to a recent survey, 73% of NED placements happen through personal and professional connections.

At Grace Blue we strongly believe that CMOs have a huge role to play on boards and want to support marketing leaders to have a seat in the board room. If you have any questions on this and other topics, please feel free to contact us.

For this and more valuable insights, join us mid-January for our next Lessons in Leadership. Details will be available on our LinkedIn feed soon.