1. Network, network, network

Whilst studying the Financial Times NED Diploma, which I completed in March 2017, it was drilled into us that you will get your first position through networking, not application. So I sat at home that summer applying for role after advertised role and, of course, got nowhere. In the October I had a few words with myself and set out networking, by December I had met the founder CEO of a firm to which I could add real value and by January 2018 I had been offered my first position. To succeed, network, network, network.

2. Do your research

Unfortunately, that first role was a baptism of fire and by the end of the year I had left in fear for my future as an FCA Approved person and a company director. I kept asking myself, should I have known better? As a start-up, there was little to go on except the founder’s apparently excellent reputation, so, before accepting the role, I’d contacted anyone in my network who knew the firm, the founder CEO or the two other non-execs to be sure it was a good fit. There was significant enthusiasm from people who knew the firm about the value I could add and their comments on the people and the firm echoed my personal observations, so I felt comfortable with tackling the challenges. On reflection, however, what I took to be an innovative mind in the CEO was in fact an inability to focus; a determination to succeed in the face of regulatory hurdles was revealed to be an utter disdain for the regulator and its guiding principles; and my knowledge and experience was simply a flag to wave at potential investors, because the CEO would not entertain any change to his failing strategy. I doubt any further research would have stopped me from taking the role but I’d have been even more disappointed in myself if I hadn’t asked and then found myself in the position I did, so doing your research is vitally important.

3. Be resilient, it will take time

They say it will take two years to get your first NED role. I had my first paid role much sooner than that but having left so quickly it felt like I was starting from scratch again. Anyone who has looked for work knows how draining it can be and to maintain a positive attitude for up to two years is quite a feat. I wobbled after six months and started exploring exec opportunities, but with each opportunity the reasons I chose to do NED work rose up and made me not want to pursue them. It lasted a couple of months and I got over it. Resilience, perseverance and a strong belief in yourself are must have traits when building a portfolio, because it will take time.

4. There’s always something to learn

Board responsibilities are wide ranging, the landscape ever changing and even a basic level of understanding of areas outside of your exec experience will improve the level of challenge. Over the last year I have added both cyber risk management and ESG to my board skillset, the former through a qualification completed before Covid and the latter through membership of relevant organisations such as Chapter Zero and attendance at educational events, which has been so much easier online due to lockdown that I hope that aspect continues once we are all free again. So during those months looking for roles and networking, try and identify gaps in your board skillset and fill them. There has never been a better time than lockdown for that.