§1: Frightening the CEO and other directors
Nascent NEDs frequently, if unconsciously, spook CEOs and directors on NED interview panels. There’s an art in reassuring the CEO that he or she should not feel threatened. However, at the same time, the NED is expected to act as a critical friend. This is a tricky balance but crucial at a time when corporate failure and scandal is perceived to be driven, in part, by the reluctance of NEDs to call out poor conduct more frequently and robustly. I suspect that, in future, boards will be increasingly looking for more courageous NEDs.
§2: Forgetting to sell themselves effectively at interview
Potential NEDs rarely lack self-belief, if not self-worth. This leads them to break basic interview rules. They talk too much, don’t listen and don’t address needs. They will have forgotten how to sell in these circumstances. Selling is about understanding needs, demonstrating how you meet these needs and reassuring the buyer about any gaps. The mistake made most often by NED candidates is that they forget that the least risky, not necessarily the best candidate, is likely to be selected. They focus on themselves and their strengths instead of closing the gap between their weaknesses and the needs of the buyer.
§3: Failure to demonstrate, rather than assert, strengths
I have worked with many successful business leaders who fail to tell the stories behind their success. Some because they have not needed to do so or have big egos. Others, because they are uncomfortable with their success or even shy about it. Either way, the interview panel needs stories that demonstrate success. Mediocre NEDs who can tell good stories often beat better NEDs who cannot, or won’t. Novice NEDs may lack confidence, though they may not admit it. Confronting their fears and being open about them is a far better way of impressing panels and it demonstrates that they have high EI/EQ. Low confidence is easy to spot so you may as well be candid about being out of your comfort zone. Being a NED is a wholly different experience to being a CEO. If you admit that you don’t know what you don’t know about being a NED, you are likely to have a more fulfilling NED career with the right boards. But some boards you should avoid. They don’t deserve you.
§4: Needing to be a NED, rather than wanting to be one
Boards need to know that their new NEDs are not frustrated CEOs. The hiring CEOs and their boards fear that some NED applicants are settling, very reluctantly, for the next best thing to being a CEO. So, it is vital that the market feels that you are ready, mentally, to be a NED. That means that you are prepared to move on from being in power to support those in power. CEOs and boards will benefit from your experiences and learn from your mistakes, not from you breathing down their necks.
§5: No marketing plan to build the portfolio
Building a portfolio is no different to creating any professional service business. It requires the same rigour in sales and marketing planning. I have met so many nascent NEDs who come from strong sales and marketing backgrounds but who abandon these principles in their search.
§6: Ignoring their unique experiences as the best differentiator
“I tick all the boxes” is a line I must have heard a thousand times from clients getting excited by a role they want. I tell them that they will never tick all the boxes because not all the boxes have been revealed in the job specification, either deliberately or unconsciously. Also, they frequently self-deceive on the boxes they say they do tick. Not that they lie. It is just they do not face the truth. Instead, they should focus on their unique career timeline. No one shares that. Not one.
§7 Failing to display high emotional intelligence
Everyone has behavioural weaknesses. But successful business people rarely have to confront theirs because they are in power. But when they are pitching for a NED role they are not in charge. They are selling, not buying. Furthermore, the buyer needs to expose at interview any behavioural issues that may become problematic later. So portfolio builders who have not paid attention to emotional intelligence issues will struggle if they do not confront their behavioural weaknesses. They must be ready to reassure the buyer that they are self-aware.
Probably lack of self-awareness is the single most significant barrier to building a fulfilling NED portfolio.
For more on this topic: see
The Seven Deadly Sins of Nascent NEDs