Advice for Aspiring NEDs by Portfolio NED Paul Drechsler
These are Paul’s top tips for taking on large private or listed board roles written by Fiona Hathorn, Women on Boards UK’s (WOB) Managing Director, following Paul’s talk at one of WOB’s FTSE NED Breakfast Group meetings (14th January 2016).
- Paul believes it is a privilege to be on boards contributing to the success of UK companies and society in general. Paul’s also believes it is the NED’s duty to ensure companies survive and perform for stakeholders and prevent “group think” to ensure our businesses remain globally competitive. Lack of diversity of thought is a key reason for many global company failures.
- To take on a portfolio career Paul believes you have to be passionate about business. Getting a board role is a “Professional Sport” and to be successful at it (or anything actually) you have to work at it. Paul’s advice is clear “train like the devil” and re-train if needed.
- Paul first took on board type roles in his 20s when he was involved with ICI and Trade Union negotiations/reporting. Taking on proxy board positions early on in your career is really beneficial as it shows you what it is like to take collective decisions and direct strategy combined with overseeing implantation and governance.
- Be clear about what sectors you are interested in and board types, for example listed or not listed. However don’t rule lots of board sectors out before listening to either the Head Hunter or one of the existing board directors. Paul always thought he would never touch the construction sector and or private companies yet he joined the board Wates Group which was one of the best decisions he made in his career – it is both a construction and a private family company! Paul points out that by listening to the Wates Group board brief his mind was changed and the rest is history – “It was a terrific company and terrific board”.
- Getting roles at this top level takes time. NED CV’s matter. They are not career bios. No you will not get recruited purely on your CV but a good NED CV might result in you getting an interview with the head hunter or with a board member – It is the interview that really matters and the NED CV can be the enabler.
- The interview – because the interview matters it is vital that you practice. Think of all those obvious questions about your career and your board strategic background and work out your likely answers. Prepare for the interview, this might seem obvious but lots of budding NEDs don’t. Use the internet, read the annual reports, ask your friends what they know about the company or the board directors/executives. Never arrive for the interview without at least having read the annual report which gives you lots of background information normally and should outline clearly the company’s current strategy. You are likely to be asked for your views on the sector and your thoughts on the future of the industry.
- The big issue for most companies, after sales and margins, at the moment is the digital world and data. The other big issues are;
- National, regional and global disturbance
- Geopolitical risks, for example the South China Sea
- Energy costs
As per the point above, about interview preparation, think about your views on the above and have answers prepared.
- Rarely is there ever a single stand out candidate, so don’t take disappointment too personally! Do everything to and make sure you are “match fit”. Paul did after he got the CBI Chair role. Paul knew that the CBI gets a lot of media attention so he wanted to make sure that he polished his media skills prior to his interviews to ensure that he would be able to confidently talk about his ability to handle media storms. We can always learn and you are never too old to retrain and sharpen up. Those that stay ahead are normally aware of the importance of investing in themselves.
- Head Hunters are often the gate keepers to interesting and important roles but don’t be naïve – search firms will have forgotten about you in 24 hours so they need “dynamic management”. Don’t underestimate them. Keep them abreast of your progress and do not hesitate if you see them in person to remind them of who you are and update them on your progress. Send them email updates as is appropriate.
- Use your networks, old and new. Your old work network is very lucrative normally as these are people who have possibly worked with you for years and really know you well and will understand your board fitness. Head hunters and board individuals love recommendations and information about potential candidates so find as many high quality advocates and supporters that you can. Be clear when you are talking to your contacts that they know what your desires are and make sure they understand your board value add, which sectors you might be interested in and your specialist offering over and above your breadth of experience.
- Ask your network for advice and be pro-active. Most people love to give advice so what is the downside – do you know anyone that would say to you “I don’t give advice”?
- Think about private companies or companies outside the FTSE. They may be easier to connect with and may not use Head Hunters.
- Apply for positions and don’t take rejection personally and remember invest in yourself and always be match fit for your boards and your board interviews………honestly you need to have “outrageous tenacity” sometimes.
Being on boards is not for everyone and FTSE Boards are often not as interesting as large private boards due to the amount of regulation involved for listed companies so be sure about why you are applying for large corporate boards. It is not always fun being on a board so to quote Paul, “You need to care deeply about business to get involved”.
Paul is the new President of the CBI (2015) and a Non-Executive Director and Chair of Bibby Line Group. He was also a Non-Executive Director of Essentra plc (formally Filtrona plc), from May 2015 until April 2015, where he is the Senior Independent Director and Chair of the Remuneration Committee. Prior to becoming a NED he was the CEO of Wates Group (September 2004) and Chair (April 2006). Before joining Wates Group Paul spend 24 years with ICI plc holding senior positions in the UK, Brazil and the USA. He was also a main Board Director of ICI plc, Chairman of ICI Pension Trustees Ltd and was a member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
In addition to this Paul is Chair of the Board of the charity, Teach First and he was also Chair of the National Skills Funding Agency Advisory Board. He is a member of the Trinity College Dublin Business School Advisory Board.