The Next Chapter: taking on a first board role

In our work with boards and with board advisors we have seen – and indeed been part of realising – a shift in the overall profile of boards and the way in which they operate. Boards are becoming more diverse and their ‘dashboards’ becoming more complex, as they respond to changes in society and their different policy and operating environments. At the same time, more and more people are thinking about taking on non-executive roles earlier in their careers, as a way of extending their experience and networks, and in order to make a contribution to an organisation or sector outside their day to day executive life.

We are delighted to work with many people looking for or starting their first non-executive role and so we have summarised here some of the things to think about when considering taking on a first Board post, and some headline reflections on what makes an effective non-executive. Remember when considering and applying for your first non-executive roles you won’t need to tick off the whole of this skill set but it can give you a good indication of areas to develop. Often you will have more relevant skills than you realise and may need some coaching or support to draw these out, to understand how you already or can soon meet these ideal skills and how to articulate them when applying for opportunities. Many people are able to pick up further skills and expertise through coaching, focused reading and guidance from those in your network.


Thinking about taking on a non-executive role – time to reflect

The best time to consider your suitability for a non-executive role is as early as possible and certainly before you start submitting applications. Take time to reflect on your areas of interest and knowledge, your transferable skills, and the competencies and behaviours you will need to demonstrate in order to be effective in a different and non-operational board role.

Some roles – especially those focused on leadership, strategy, stakeholder engagement and governance – are easier to translate in to non-executive work, but whatever your experience to date, you may need to present your capabilities and track record in a different way than you’re used to. We meet many talented and experienced executives who aren’t yet completely fluent in expressing the difference in responsibilities and ways of working between executive or consulting roles on the one hand, and non-executive roles on the other. This is worth rehearsing with those who are used to serving on and or recruiting to boards.

As you start to look at non-executive opportunities, it is worth spending time considering what you hope to contribute in a non-executive role and whether you feel able to do this already, or whether you need to develop some skills or gain certain experiences to enable you to do this. It is important to consider your values and interests in building a non-executive portfolio, you could take on roles in different sectors to your executive work.

So, how do you know what skills and behaviours are needed to be an effective non-executive, and to help you in your reflections and preparations for the next chapter? We often work with Boards to help them recruit, develop and review their non-executives, here we share some key tips to be an effective non-executive in relation to the Board Leadership Model[1]. Although all areas can be important for an effective Board it is worth reflecting on which areas you can initially add most value to.

[1] Dr Peter Dudley

The Outside World – and how it is changing

What are your strengths in considering the whole system perspective? How can you apply this in a new organisation or sector as a non-executive? You’ll need to be prepared and able to understand the business and the sector and stakeholder landscape in which it sits, as well as how relevant policy and regulation may be changing. Understanding stakeholder’s perspectives and contemplating the dynamics between stakeholders, strategic decisions and future developments will be essential. ESG will become an increasingly vital part of the work of boards – do you have awareness of environmental and social factors and how these relate to the business? You’ll need to consider how these factors impact the business and the impact that business has on others.

Creating the Future

One of the words we hear most when talking about board roles is ‘strategic’. Do you think strategically, have you considered how this strategic thinking may be different as a non-executive? Do you know what it means to be strategic on a Board and can you articulate and evidence how you have contributed to or led on developing and delivering strategies? A strong focus on the long-term perspective is important, being creative but also considering challenges and risks alongside opportunities. There is a need to consider things like long-term investments or divestments, changing customer and competitor landscapes, how to evolve brand and people strategies, including talent attraction, development and succession. As you won’t be involved in the day to day executive aspects of the organisation you’ll need to really understand the organisation and its operating environment to help inform your strategic view.

As a non-executive it will be important to think about and add value to how boards balance short-term and long-term goals and how they ensure that strategic objectives are set and delivered against. In reality, different boards play different roles in setting strategy but they can all consider things like how strategy is formulated; for example, is the approach to strategy development inclusive and sensitive to different stakeholders and potential partners? How does the strategy align with purpose and values?  What behaviors might a new strategy most incentivise and what might that mean for organisational culture? What are the implications of following strategies that are not supported by core capabilities and established culture in the organisation?

Once a strategy is in place, boards need to ensure that they have the information, skills and culture they need to be effective in monitoring, measuring, sometimes adapting and ultimately achieving strategic objectives, whilst at the same time hitting key performance targets and meeting required standards.

Nurturing Identity

New board members will be able to quickly ‘take the temperature’ of an organisation and will need to have or develop the confidence to participate in conversations on culture. You’ll need to get under the skin of the values, culture and purpose of an organisation to ensure that strategies, policies, processes and practices align with the vision. You’ll be expected to personally embody the values of an organisation as a board member, model its expected behaviours and monitor how others do the same. We often hear that the Board is not visible enough to staff and the importance of informal interactions for two-way learning and relationship building can’t be over-estimated. How committed are you to increasing the social impact alongside the financial impact of an organisation? How do you speak up and take action when you see misaligned behaviours? How do you get staff and stakeholders to engage with the purpose and values? You’ll need to remain open and available to listen to ideas, concerns and feedback and recognise the significant amount of time this can entail.

Managing the Present and understanding risk

A focus on the future, the outside world and identity can’t be at the cost of considering the present. There is a responsibility to challenge and support the Executive tea on how they deliver the strategy day to day, securing governance and assurance around that delivery. One of the most common issues we hear from first time board members is resisting the temptation to dive into the operational detail. As a board member you are there to advise and provide a strategic steer and critical support to the executive, not to do their job for them. You’ll need to quickly learn to toe this line which can be initially frustrating for new board members who can see the solutions there for themselves. It’s helpful to reflect on where in your own career you have already had to step away from the operational: perhaps in leading a large and dispersed team where you couldn’t always be ‘on top’ of every detail and had to delegate to your team, or perhaps when you were working in an advisory capacity to a client or external organisation? Try to relearn the lessons you took from those times and keep this front of mind in your first few months as a board member. It can be helpful to stay abreast of emerging and current hot Board topics, for example climate emergency, digital transformation, diversity, purpose and stakeholder capitalism.

How do you ensure there is a clear operating model that can be sustained long term? How does the operating model create both tangible and intangible value? You’ll need to set clear actions, optimise resource allocation and determine practices to deliver strategic aims. How do you determine the risk appetite of an organisation and help contribute to a dynamic risk register, which responds to how the organisation and its operating environment is changing? You’ll need to consider short and long terms gains and risks and be aware of whether your own risk appetitive is different to that of the Board.  Can you provide clarity around decisions, objectives, impacts and outcomes?

Board Team Effectiveness – and the Inclusion Imperative[2]

As part of the board you’ll need to play your part in ensuring the whole team is effective, and supports the effectiveness of other teams and networks. You’ll need to be clear on the board purpose and accountabilities, follow robust governance processes, read relevant papers and ensure you have the right level of information. It is likely you would heave already been a member of an Executive team and perhaps of a Board as an Executive member, you will need to learn to navigate the continuum between the Board’s decision-making role and its advisory role. Collaborating effectively within the Board and with the Executive team to optimise the Board’s value add to the Executive team and therefore the organisation. The challenge can come from the Board being composed of very diverse members which brings huge benefits but also requires members to collaborate to realise those benefits and practise behaviours that might be underused.

Can you develop trust, mutual respect and open communication? Are you able to engage in informed and challenging debate? Can you ask good questions and be challenging and respectful at the same time? Are you open to a range of different perspectives? You’ll need to have clear success criteria for decisions, challenge underlying assumptions and unconscious bias. You’ll need to be able to understand, acknowledge and leverage diversity for collaboration. Are you open to continuous improvement and evaluation? How do you question and challenge effectively? You’ll need to strike the balance between supporting and challenging and contributing beyond your own subject matter expertise.

The erosion of trust in many established organisations and sectors has been much discussed; it is a complex area but many of today’s boards are required to be more consultative and sensitive to stakeholders than they might have been in the past. Power dynamics are being challenged at every level, and boards are increasingly required to be more inclusive in their approach, and work hard to understand and respond to different views and changes in their stakeholder landscape. As a result and in support of this shift, more attention is being paid to the communication and engagement style and values of board members, such as those mentioned in relation to nurturing identity. How might you evidence that you seek out and respond to other’s views, and how can you model an inclusive approach to leadership and engagement?

[2] Deloitte Insights The Inclusion Imperative for Boards 2019

Governance – learning and networking

There are various organisations to assist you in understanding governance responsibilities, below we list a few that could be helpful. Some of these also offer networking opportunities or platforms. Keep in mind that you should also seek out regulators and organisations that provide sector-specific governance advice.

Under-represented groups

There are numbers of networks serving in particular people from under-represented groups – a  few of those are listed below.

Coaching for new or aspiring non-executives

Saxton Bampfylde works with individuals to help them determine their next career steps, to reflect upon and develop skills in the areas above. If you want to talk further about becoming a non-executive or improving your effectiveness please do get in touch.



We have a pivotal role to play in the development of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background leaders, and particularly those at a point of transition to executive leadership or board level. Building on the success of our REACH mentoring programme for high-potential civil servants with a disability, we are proud to launch STEP, a holistic coaching, development and career development programme offering for individuals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

We seek to build long term partnerships with our clients, helping nurture their upcoming diverse talent, and supporting them in their self-development, interviewing and presentation skills, and networking with like-minded professionals across a range of sectors to which they would not normally be exposed.

Find out more about STEP Programme

Find out more about our Board Practice


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