How to build your Non-Exec Portfolio in 2016

How to build your Non-Exec Portfolio in 2016

For over a decade I have worked with many would be Non-Exec Portfolio builders. The following issues come up again and again.

The challenge of refining, clarifying and communicating your new purpose at work, and in life

Your purpose as a CEO, CFO, COO, CMO, Sales Director, CIO, HRD, GC, Partner, Managing Partner or Serial Entrepreneur (have I missed yours?) will, at least to you, have been clear. But that’s all over now, for whatever reason. You will have jumped, if you were lucky. Most are pushed. Either way you don’t feel in top form. Clients breezily tell me that they’re “fine”. But they’re not. I can tell.

Dress it up however you like, but leaving the top job is traumatic. It’s like a death. Treat it as one. You will experience most, if not all, of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness/depression, and acceptance. This applies to everyone, even the tiny percentage who are head-hunted for top NED roles and, unlike you, don’t need to seek them. They will say this is tosh. But it isn’t. It’s true.

Once you have faced the past you have a good chance of confronting your future purpose. You will, usually, be wealthy enough not to worry too much about money but invariably you will want to work. You are like a thoroughbred not ready for the meadow. Your race is not yet done. But how do you go about deciding on a new purpose?

What’s complicated about deciding to build a “portfolio of non-executive directorships”? Nothing, except that you won’t get them or the ones you really want or deserve if your motivation isn’t clear. Motivation is a complex issue. Google the literature and you will see why. It involves your needs, aspirations, and often, those of others. You can’t over-feel or over-think your purpose. So take some time to think about it.

You know a lot about strategy; start applying your knowledge of strategy to your new Non-Exec Portfolio business

You know that most of the guff about strategy is just that, guff. That’s why you were successful. Whilst others were talking about strategy you were making things happen. But you also know that, whilst strategy is simply about how to achieve an objective, it’s often difficult to get it right. You must get it right, now, with your nascent or growing Non-Exec Portfolio business. And, make no mistake, it is a business. You are now a Professional Services Firm (PSF) of one, whether you like it or not. All the art and science of business, much of which you already know, must be applied to your new business. There is good news and bad news about your new business strategy. The good news is that it is simple and is same for every NED. The bad news is that it is difficult to execute.

So, the best strategy to build a Non-Exec Portfolio business is to exploit every opportunity to demonstrate, rather than assert, your unique career assets. “But there are thousands of people like me and that’s why it’s so bloody difficult getting the NED roles.” clients protest. I disagree. Yes, there are thousands of NEDs seeking roles. But there’s only one you. For once, you can honestly claim an USP, whose origin extends back to your formative years. “But”, clients come back: “That cuts no ice if there are many top Financial Services NEDs chasing just one FS role.” I disagree. It does. It’s just that many NEDs fail to exploit their USP to secure the role. In addition, Boards find it hard to get the right NEDs. It is a needle in a haystack for them too. I don’t buy the over-supply argument. This is still an unreconstructed market. You can exploit this by adjusting your behaviour to its needs.

Stop behaving in a manner certain to sabotage your chances; start remembering who’s buying and who’s selling

Here is a selection of behaviours by which NEDs sabotage, albeit unwittingly, their nascent or growing Non-Exec Portfolio businesses:


  • unintentionally scare CEOs and/or other directors who might feel threatened or undermined by them
  • are unaware of their own behavioural weaknesses because these will have not come under such intense scrutiny for some time; this can be a shock
  • fail to articulate their personal purpose in pursuing a portfolio career because they are doing so reactively rather than proactively
  • fail to show how their personal purpose and the purpose of the business they are targeting can be inter-dependent
  • fail to manage the search for NED roles as a rigorous PSF-type, sales and marketing campaign, when that’s what is required
  • fail to demonstrate, rather than assert, their competence at interview, and beforehand; they have forgotten or don’t know how to sell because they have not had to do so for a long time
  • come across as risk averse or lacking in commercial nous if they happen to be lawyers seeking NED roles

Above all, they fail to find a way to demonstrate that they are the least risky choice. Boards choose the least risky, not the best, NEDs. Although, as old canines, NEDs are resistant to learning new tricks they are, nevertheless, capable of demonstrating that they have in the past, and can in the future, make small changes in their behaviour. This will reassure the Board. This is the trick to growing a Non-Exec Portfolio.

Boards know what you’re good at. But they need to know what you’re bad at, how that compares with your competition and what small changes you will make to address it. They find it as hard to select an NED as you do to secure a role. They need reassurance. Reassure them. That’s part of your new purpose: to give reassurance. This may be new for you. It requires change. Small change. That’s worth thinking about.

I am facilitating a One Day Programme on How to Build a Portfolio of Non-Executive Directorships at the Institute of Directors, Pall Mall, London, on Thursday 25th. February 2016. You can apply HERE. Think about it.







#CEOs should worry that @Skapinker @FT today is “struck how well” retirees look at parties…

…because the success of their organisations and the  health of the people they lead are inter dependent. He writes that he sees previous retirees at retirement parties. He quotes compelling research about the benefits of retirement. He notices that”their skin often has a glow it did not have when they were working and most of them are thinner”. I can believe it. What an indictment of many cultures at work. But what to do? Small change I say. If CEOs changed only ten actions in one hundred in order to create an environment, particularly psychological, in which people can thrive then that would be only 10% change. Sill difficult I know. But﹟SmallChange nevertheless…

Ciaran: helping leaders change


#Schedule X is the list of legal services which #GCs and #CEOs could, if they had the courage…

…to do so, agree cannot be provided within the agreed budget and Legal Business Plan, which will always fall short of what is ideal. This would prevent in-house counsel from endlessly performing a masochistic “diving catch” because they are trained to believe they should solve every problem presented to them irrespective of the cost, or opportunity cost, of doing so. An agreed Schedule X would also ensure that CEOs take full responsibility for the duties, as well as the rights, that come with the privilege (sic) of having an in-house legal team. 

Helping leaders change