Michelle Gardiner
Michelle Gardiner,
Partner, Derwent Executive
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How to secure a non-executive director role in Australia

The most common reasons to join a board are for professional development, to build a portfolio career and to use their skills and experience to give back, to mentor and to support a worthwhile organisation.

With Michelle Gardiner, Partner Derwent Executive
Written by Rebekah Campbell

I’ve often wondered if I’d have the skills and experience to become a non-executive director.  But I have no idea how to start looking for a role or if company boards would be interested in someone like me.

I sat down with Michelle Gardiner who runs the Board Practice at Derwent, Australia’s leading executive recruiter for high-growth and mid-size enterprise across ASX, private, government and for purpose settings.  Michelle and her team are committed to developing the next generation of Australian company directors.

This article is a thorough guide for emerging executives and entrepreneurs who are considering adding a non-executive directorship to their portfolio of work.  Please leave questions in the comments at the end.

If you’d like to get feedback, personal advice, support to develop your plan and lots of inside tips, then come along to Michelle Gardiner and Ben Derwent’s ‘Pathway to the boardroom’ workshop and spend a day in a small group with a leading Australian board search firm.

 

What’s in this article:

  • Why become a non-executive director?
  • What types of board roles are available?
  • What skills is the market looking for? How to position yourself and your value-add proposition.
  • How to start looking for a role.
  • What goes on a board CV?
  • Understand the board recruitment process.
  • How to select the right board position.
  • What does a non-executive director in Australia get paid?
  • Understand the commitment expectation of a NED.

 

Why become a non-executive director?

Michelle says: ‘People approach us with a wide range of reasons for why they’d like to be considered for a non-executive director role.  The most common are for professional development, to build a portfolio career and to use their skills and experience to give back, to mentor and to support a worthwhile organisation.’

Professional development:

‘Joining a board of another company is an incredible learning and development opportunity. You’ll develop your strategic ability and get an insight into how other people run their businesses – often in non-competing but complementary industries.  You’ll also learn a new set of skills that are quite different from the skills you need to operate or lead a business.  You’ll learn to asking probing questions and challenge when appropriate.  You’ll need to collaborate, listen and influence.  You’ll give advice but won’t always be listened to.  It’s about working as a team.’

Develop a portfolio career

‘Many more executives and entrepreneurs are looking to build a portfolio career.  Taking on a non-executive director role can be an excellent first step towards transitioning to a career that might include consulting, mentoring and several disparate board positions.’

Giving back

‘We also meet lots of CEOs, CFOs or entrepreneurs who have had successful careers and want to give back. This could involve joining the board of a not-for-profit or an emerging business with a mission you believe in and want to support.  There is a need for committed people with great skills right across the spectrum.’

 

Different types of boards and roles available

‘Becoming a non-executive director isn’t just about the Top 200 ASX listed companies.   There are thousands of private, high-growth and smaller-cap companies.  These businesses are often doing exciting, innovative things; some are gaining investment, looking to list, are growing really fast and are great opportunities for emerging non-executive directors. 

Often, a good NFP board can be a good starting point to learn the environment and build your network for the next role.  It may be the easiest option if you’re still in an executive career as it’s unlikely to be a conflict.  Government roles are sensitive to conflict and are often a better option for consultants or professional directors.’

 

What kind of people is the market looking for?

‘Most companies are looking for diversity in its entirety.  We’ve moved away from just accountants and lawyers on boards – although there will always be a need for them.  Diversity isn’t just about gender, age and cultural background.  A healthy board should boast a diverse set of skills and experience.  We’re often asked to recruit directors with skills in customer experience, digital marketing, sales, an entrepreneurial mindset and innovation – all highly sought-after in the current market.

Boards will also have a style of candidate in mind.  For example, they might describe their board culture as being able to challenge each other without getting upset.  They’ll want someone who can be a team member but be confident enough to speak up.’

 

How to start looking for a board role

‘First understand your value-add proposition to a board.  Identify what you’ll bring to the board table and get really good at your elevator pitch.

Then map the market and work out where you’d like to play that aligns with your skill-sets.  We do this work with you in our workshop, but if you can’t attend the workshop then you should create a spreadsheet and map who’s sitting on which board and their skill sets.  Look for companies who don’t have your skill-set but need it and identify who can introduce you. 

Then get out there and tell everyone you can reach.  Talk to CEOs, CFOs, people you know who are already sitting on boards as well as lawyers, accountants and advisors.  Build your network and let everyone know that this is what you’re looking for.’

 

What goes on a board CV

‘A board CV is quite different from an executive CV.  You don’t list out your achievements and KPIs in the same way.  Your experience is what got you here, so be brief. 

The crux of a board CV is your value-add, what you’ll bring to the board.  For example: functional experience, sector expertise, committee expertise, global experience etc.  List up to six bullet points.  The CV should be no longer than two pages.’

Develop and get feedback on your CV in Michelle’s workshop.

 

Understand the board recruitment process

‘The AICD do a good job of publicising the ASX top 200 roles but there are 2000 ASX listed companies and thousands more private companies, often doing amazing things.  These roles usually aren’t advertised.  Only government roles or member-based organisations are advertised.  The vast majority of board roles in Australia are placed by a small number of recruitment companies, including us, or by word-of mouth. 

Companies come to us looking to recruit a director because they know we have a talent pool of both existing and emerging non-executive directors.  This is why networking is so important, and I’d be one of the people with whom you need to network.

We know our clients well and we work to understand the style and culture of a board as well as the skill-set requirements.  Some boards are very formal, and some are relaxed.  Boards are a delicate balance and can be very nervous about ensuring they bring the right person into their group.  It’s important for us to understand the individuals who are already around the table so we can suggest the right candidates.  It’s also important for us to know the candidates well.

We generally present a list of six to ten candidates and then narrow it down to two to three.  Then it’s down to style and fit. There are a lot of nuances to consider when placing a NED.’

Michelle and Ben will workshop and role-play a board interview in their workshop.

 

How to select the right board position – particularly a not-for-profit position

‘There’s a lot to consider when you’re looking to take on a commercial board position and it’s important you do thorough due diligence.  We’ll go through the essential questions to ask at our workshop.

A not-for profit board is simpler.  I often get asked if joining a not-for-profit board is a good way to advance your career. And it can be, but you’ve got to select carefully.

First, ensure you have a real passion for the mission of the not-for-profit and that your values align. Then look at who else is sitting around the board table.  You don’t want to join a NFP board and discover that you’re the only person with commercial skills.  These groups often attract well-meaning people, but you won’t want all the governance and fundraising to fall on your shoulders.  You want to join a NFP board with experienced directors that you can learn from. Assess the calibre and networks of your fellow directors; what will you learn, what other boards are they on. They will see you in action and may recommend you in future.

 

What does a non-executive director in Australia get paid?

The remuneration of company directors in Australia is varied.  It’s a misconception that it’s easy to replicate what you’ll earn as an executive as a NED.  You can’t go into it with that mentality.  You’ll earn a certain amount of money but if a disaster comes along, you’ll have to work very hard and you won’t get any extra money.

Most not-for-profit boards are voluntary.  Government boards will generally pay between $25K - $45K.  A bigger company board might pay the Chair $275K - $350K, a company further down the ASX will pay the chair around $120K and less for directors. The bulk of people on boards have already had big careers.  It’ll be very difficult to replicate your executive salary as a NED.

 

Understand the commitment expectation of a NED

Again, this is varied. The average board will meet 10 -12 times per year, do one or two strategy sessions per year and perhaps a phone call once per month.  It’ll take on average half a day to prepare for a board meeting.  If you’re on a committee then the committee meeting will often run on the same day as the board meeting.  Part of your role could be to mentor the CEO or other key executives, which is additional time.

To meet Michelle Gardiner and Ben Derwent from Derwent Executive come to their Sydney workshop 'Pathway to the Boardroom' on 1 March.

Get $200 discount to Pathway to the Boardroom and all related workshops listed below using the promotional code ‘Pathway’ at Eventbrite.


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