The non-executive director role-play

Fancy broadening your career horizons? Then why not become a non-executive director (NED)? As it happens an interesting new post at COI Communications has just come up: a second non-exec position to run alongside the one occupied by Marilyn Baxter, who has been there since 2003.

Maybe that sounds a bit specialised, though. After all, the COI is all about the (hopefully judicious) creation and distribution of marketing services communications across government departments. Baxter was a career account planner – like her predecessor John Bartle – so an expert in the field. And, for good measure, she had experience (no less a requirement in this particular job) of dealing with civil servants, having earlier worked with the National Economic Development Office.

Never mind: there are plenty of other opportunities out there. Only last week, for example, we discovered that marketing director Steve Sharp, rightfully associated with the rapid resurgence of Marks & Spencer, was taking up a non-executive position at regional brewer Adnams. Sharp’s views on a good pint are not a matter of public record. What we do know is that he has plenty of experience in dealing with difficult market environments (he also worked at Asda, Burton Group, Booker and Arcadia) and Adnams needs all the help it can get – beer sales being what they are.

Being a high-profile success story like Sharp obviously makes your services highly desirable. His problem will not be finding the post, but finding the time to refuse the many companies who beat a path to his door. Most prospective candidates, by contrast, must await “the call” – usually from a headhunter. Informal approaches over cocktails (the old boys’ network) are not unknown, but much less obvious in these times of stringent corporate governance. For the same reason, even when you get the nod, you may have to endure a battery of daunting psychometric tests to establish that you are the right kind of person.

Lastly, once you land the job, will you think it’s been worth it? These days being a non-exec is no £30,000-£70,000 a year sinecure, if it ever was. The current exposé by trial of Conrad Black’s corporate misdemeanours is a timely reminder that non-executive directors have (or should have) pretty awesome responsibilities to discharge as well as pleasant perks to enjoy.

Fortunately, being a non-executive director rarely has much to do with reining in an out-of-control board. It’s usually not that gripping. As one NED says: “It involves dealing with everything from company performance to market fluctuation to pension problems, and this is not always easy or even very interesting.”

Where it scores is by adding experience and depth to the CV of marketing executives eager to make a transition to general management or even the running of a public company. That practical experience is not easy to acquire by alternative means, given that most marketing executives are unlikely to gain boardroom status by virtue of their function as head of the marketing department alone.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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