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Are you an executive looking to build your skills as a non-executive director?

Many executives choose to venture down this path, but the truth is it can be a challenging transition.

The competition for board roles is often fierce. You’ll be going up against other ex-CEOs, CFOs, COOs and senior executives with years of experience and knowledge behind them.

So, how do you prepare for a board role and set yourself apart from the competition?

In this article, we share insight from Peter Hislop, one of Australia’s most well-respected executive coaches and founder of To Lead?

Peter advises senior executives from some of Australia’s largest companies about leadership and how to achieve their full potential.

Here, Richard Elstone and Peter Hislop discuss 5 strategies for executives looking to move into the non-executive space.

But first, let’s dive into the difference between an executive and non-executive role.

Executive vs non-executive directors in Australia

Executive directors are usually employees of a company. They run the show and have decision-making authority over the day-to-day management of the organisation.

Non-executive directors (NEDs) sit on the board but are not involved in the day-to-day management of a company or organisation. They are not employees. They are essentially there to represent the shareholders.

NEDs are charged with acting in the best interests of the company and are involved in policymaking and planning. Their responsibilities include developing strategy, scrutinising management’s performance, overseeing corporate governance and risk (including cyber security), and appointing or removing executive directors where necessary.

NEDs are expected to bring a depth of knowledge and skills to the table.

Strategies for becoming a NED

1) Be prepared to relinquish control

If you want to move into a non-executive role, you need to understand how to be an effective leader and how to relinquish control, to a degree.

“When you teach your child to ride a bike, you don’t jump on the bike and ride it around the street for them,” says Peter. “You get your kid on the bike and say, ‘I’m going to pick you up if you fall over’. You have to take the same approach to leadership.

“Executives who have been schooled in their subject matter expertise love being the answer to everything. Sometimes they may not like other people doing things, or they may have a sense of ego when they do it themselves.

“However, the worst thing you can have are executives who are doing too much and their direct reports are sitting around doing nothing.”

The same logic applies to non-executive directors, according to Peter.

“You don’t want too many board members being instructors – that would make it unbearable for the people reporting into the board, because suddenly they have 12 or 13 new bosses.”

2) Understand the difference between the roles

As an executive, your job is to direct. To implement solutions.

As a non-executive director, you need to challenge. To lead. To influence.

“That’s what a number of NEDs struggle with,” Executive Interview Coaching founder Richard Elstone says.

“I had one newly minted non-executive director tell me that in his first few meetings he should have had L-plates on his back. As a recent, former executive, he immediately wanted to go into solution mode, rather than utilising his influencing and questioning skills to direct the conversation the way he needed it to be.”

3) Stay curious

Part of being a good leader and thriving in a board setting is being curious.

Leaders who are curious encourage others to ask questions. They explore different ideas and challenge the norm. This in turn paves the way for innovation and creativity.

“A lot of board members have lost, during their time as executives, the art of curiosity,” says Peter. “They’re so used to being right about everything and everyone applauding them, that they’re not curious.

“A leader, whether they’re on a board, CEO or on a leadership team, has to firstly show curiosity, because that opens up the conversation. If they don’t, they’re always walking around with blinkers on.”

4) Learn how to ask the right questions

Peter says during your first year as a NED, expect it to be a time of learning. In particular, it’s about learning how to ask the right questions, so that your time is not wasted.

“Being a board member is really the art of being able to ask pertinent questions in order to make decisions on behalf of the company,” adds Richard.

“The art of questioning, if you do it well, allows the board to gather the information they need to make a decision.”

Richard says ideally, you should avoid asking ‘why’ questions.

“These kinds of questions have a perceived agenda behind them,” he says. “Say, for example, a non-executive asks: ‘Why did you make that decision?’ Immediately the person being asked the question is going to go into defensive mode.

“Instead, you may rephrase the question to something like, ‘Can you walk me through the thought process behind the decision?’ You’ll get a much less defensive answer if you ask the question that way.”

5) Master time management

As an executive director, you may be used to having subordinates organise your day for you. However, as a NED, you’ll likely need to be more self-sufficient.

“You may have a number of board positions and will need to have acute time management and organisational skills,” says Peter.

“Suddenly you’ll be out on your own and have to allocate time to read board papers, focus on the organisation, think through issues, consider what the board said last time and where the other directors, chair and executive leadership team are at.”

Ready to take the next step?

If you’re an executive looking to move into the non-executive space, why not consider leadership coaching?

Peter is a specialist in leadership and can equip you with the skills and confidence to transition your leadership style to that of a ‘coach and influencer’ which could help secure your first NED appointment. To find out more, head to Peter’s website, To Lead?

Remember, if you need help preparing for a board interview, get in touch with Executive Interview Coaching. Richard offers tailored advice to help both executives and non-executives land their next role.

To see if you’re ready, take our 2023 non executive checklist. Simply answer a couple of quick questions about your career and get instant feedback to enhance your interview performance.

For further advice and tips, get in touch with executive career coach Richard Elstone, from Executive Interview Coaching to chat about your career goals.


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