What’s it like being a Non-Exec Director?

Two and a half years ago I signed on for my first Non Exec Director (NED, or NXD if you’re cool…I’m not) position, as Chairman of Ruler Analytics. Since then I’ve worked with a number of agencies and tech companies in a similar capacity.

I often get asked about the role (e.g. “what the hell do you do these days?”) by both founders and people interested in similar role, so I thought I share what the job has involved so far.

Firstly, let’s be clear. It’s completely different to how I thought it would be.

Expectation versus reality

When you read about NED roles (as I did before committing), you hear words like governance, advisor, subject matter expert, board-level mandate, commercial rigour,… generally quite serious stuff.

Indeed running or participating in board meetings is a key part of the role, but there’s a lot more to it.

Ruler Analytics Board (Bored?) Meeting

While about half of my time is in scheduled face to face meetings (catch-ups, board meeting etc.) the rest of it is quite ad hoc. The 7pm phone call at night reflecting on a team challenge, or the whats-app messages sounding-out the subtleties of a commercial deal. In fact, it’s the element of being a sounding board that seems to deliver the most value. At least, that’s what they tell me.



Coaching via whats app

Whether part of a scheduled catch-up or a late night phone call, the bulk of the NED role is a mix of coaching or mentoring.

That doesn’t mean you’re there to recount old war stories…save those for the pub. It’s about suggesting alternative approaches and helping the founder think broader when they’re stuck in a certain paradigm….and the choice of topics can be endless: development priorities, team recruitment and retention, product pricing, sales approach, marketing strategy, contract negotiation, funding etc…

Remember, it’s not your business

Having run a couple of organisations it’s easy to default into an executive role…but you have to avoid it. You’re there for advice and support, all the final decisions sit with the founder(s) of the business. If the company takes an action you’ve advised against, it’s tough. It’s not your business.

Diplomacy is key here and I recently found myself re-reading the book  Humble Inquiry in an attempt to make my style less directing. I heartily recommend it.

Changing gears

Initially, it was the impromptu nature of the role that required the most change for me. Walking out of one meeting to receive a call from another, completely different, business requires you to change gears pretty quickly. 20 years of agency life provided some good preparation for this, quickly switching from one client to another, but the added complexity of different subject matter has an increased cognitive load.

Despite only working one or two days a month for each business, you’re technically always on, and when you’re not with the team, you’re still thinking about them.

Leveraging your network

In my “free time” I’m still networking and drinking coffee/beer/wine/whisky [delete as appropriate] with friends, colleagues and peers within the industry because I’m a fairly social person; sometimes to help out early-stage businesses; other times to find opportunities for the companies I’m involved in. Because I tend to work with companies that complement each other, there’s often a lot of cross-over – when one business gains a new client, it might also be an opportunity for the others. They also become clients of each other.


So, it this what you expect from an NED? Is there something missing.

2 Replies to “What’s it like being a Non-Exec Director?

  1. Great insight, Rich.
    I think there can be many types of advisory roles and some don’t involve the rigorous board meeting.
    One business I am involved with runs quarterly fairly informal advisory board meetings. All the hard work is done by the management team who present essentially 2 things: progress and problems. The advisors react and interact spontaneously. This approach has had tremendous impact on the business and has run successfully for 3 years. And my role is very similar to what you mention: ask questions, challenge views, share experience. I always look forward to those 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.