There are many thrills and challenges unique to being a non-executive director. Every good director will spend their career growing, learning and developing.
As my board career has progressed and I’ve taken on more leadership roles, I’ve had a lot of opportunities for reflection. Because, of course, we were all new once.
Here’s what I wish I’d known on day one of my first appointment:
1. I wish I had known this is a team sport.
Every director brings their own skills and experience, but the real value is in what they can achieve together. Being a non-executive director means being a team player. It means bringing your own insights, but being aware of others at the same time. Everyone at a board table has a unique and valuable perspective, and the best decisions are made when all of those people come together.
2. I wish I had known the importance of personal development and growth.
A board makes decisions as a group, and I have spoken widely about the risk of plural ignorance around the board table. One of the best weapons against this kind of groupthink is to always be learning and thinking about your own thinking. Non-executive directors need to be curious, not only about information itself but also the way they learn, how to question, how to support board diversity, how to solve problems. That just isn’t possible if you’re not looking and thinking about your development outside of the boardroom.
3. I wish I had understood how advice would be different as a non-executive.
One of the big lessons I learned as a new director was how your relationship with advisors changes as a non-executive director. It’s a very different advice relationship to when you were an executive. You need to be very clear who they are working for: are they advising management, or are they advising the board? It’s important to understand who’s ‘on your team’, and I think a lot of new directors don’t see that shift in the relationship early enough. As a result they can waste substantial time asking the wrong advisors the wrong questions at the wrong point in time.
4. I wish I had known how much work it takes to get the most from a board.
At its heart, the board is a living organism. It’s a group of people, each with their own thoughts and ideas, and each bringing their own external experience to make singular decisions. As a new director, I probably expected to join an amazing group of well-oiled high performers, and watch the board continue to improve all the time. In reality, that kind of growth takes work. It requires the wrestling and navigation of a diverse group of people, each with their own strengths and quirks. Every director has to be prepared to work hard on the common goals of the board, but equally on the dynamic of the board itself.
5. I wish I had known how important it is to always have a perspective.
As a non-executive director you simply can’t sit on the fence. A great director needs the confidence to stand up and take a view. It’s crucial to come into the boardroom with a perspective, and to stand behind that perspective, to really fight for it. But it’s equally critical to revise that perspective as soon as you have new information or one of your assumptions changes. Stanford professor Bob Sutton talks about “strong opinions, weakly held”, which I think is a great way of summarising the approach required of all directors.
Being a non-executive director is challenging and rewarding. It offers me the opportunity to work across diverse industries, to always be thinking and developing, and to contribute to organisations in a truly meaningful way.
But there is a real learning curve, and one of our most important roles as senior directors is to pass down the insights we’ve gained along the way.
I’d love to hear from The Resolution community what you wish you knew on day one of joining your first board.
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Diane Smith-Gander / About Author
Diane Smith-Gander is a professional company director with experience at many of Australia’s leading organisations. Her board experience includes AGL Energy, Wesfarmers Limited, Safe Work Australia, Keystart Loans, Henry Davis York, CEDA, NBNCo and Broadspectrum.
Diane is Immediate Past President of Chief Executive Women and a strong advocate for gender equity. She is a keen down hill skier and operates a vineyard in Margaret River.