Being the best possible Non-Executive Director doesn’t come easily, but my eight golden “F” words may help…
1. Facts v Fiction
Getting to grips with vital information as quickly as possible, is the only way to be effective. It’s the sorry story of many boards, that they are simply overloaded with information. Board papers are badly drafted and often far too long winded and whilst this is one of the first things I like to tackle (take a look at my new world board pack), it’s crucial to not just trim and select but to ensure the authors of such tomes have no space for writing what I term “blah blah blah”. Whilst boards are there to analyse information, its key job is to make decisions, as a NED you must learn quickly to cut through the cacophony of data, to get to the real meat of the issues.
Good or bad, mercurial or stable, every world-class NED has to have a firm handle on the business’s finances. I would go as far as saying, if you cannot read and thoroughly understand the business balance sheet and the banking arrangements of your organisation, then you have no right to have a seat at the board table.
Get to know the people in the company, walk the floor, be visible, be available, be engaging and interested, be human.
Sadly, there are too often one or more of these on boards, particularly boards that have a dominant shareholder director. As a NED this can be a hard situation to challenge, especially where family is concerned, but any board is only as good as its weakest link and there should be no one who is a puppet on any great board.
5. Fannying around
It’s often been said to me, that I can be blunt and that I have a tendency to say it as it is. Of course, that could be the Yorkshire girl in me, but I think it’s also due to a trait often found in determined people, that of just getting to the point. Having said that, being blunt doesn’t mean being cruel or unkind something I abhor, but time is always pressing and whilst being conscious never to deliberately hurt someone’s feelings, I have usually found getting straight to the point is an effective strategy.
I love working with strong minded people, the more responsible and competent they are the greater the board will be. A world-class board needs to be dynamic in every sense of the word, in fact if two people agree then maybe one of them is not necessary (ok a bit harsh), diversify and strength of character make world-class directors.
Board evaluations, if they are done in an open and honest manner and ideally using an independent third party, can help with the removal or development of the feckless, but by and large my motto tends to be if you can’t change the people - change the people.
Still on the subject of board personalities, I find those of capricious character, perhaps the most complex to deal with. Whilst a strong NED should have an open mind, I find the inconstant and disloyal board member anathema. To deal with such persons takes strength of character and first-class mindreading skills. Usually I have found this individual is on either a personal crusade or vendetta and as such your own radar needs to be on full alert, as the saying goes, make these characters your frenemies.
8. And finally, Fun!
A sense of humour is a massively underrated skill in the super NED toolbox, used appropriately it has diffused many a toxic situation. As Arthur Balfour said “nothing matters very much and few things matter at all”, whilst the last thing I am implying, is that being a NED is anything other than serious stuff for much of the time, we may as well have as much fun as possible whilst doing the best we can.