A decade ago, I rocked up on the front doorstep at Guy Remond’s previous company and gave him a bit of help with the heavy lifting. Since then, we’ve enjoyed each other’s company tremendously, bounced some great ideas off each other, and enjoyed a lot of mutual success.
It was my first proper non-executive post, and the lessons I picked up over those years have been invaluable in my journey as a non-executive.
In this blog, I’ll be sharing some of the lessons I have learnt in my time and reveal some of the key benefits a good non-exec can offer your business, especially a new, fast-growing startup!
The invaluable experience of a non-exec
If you pick the right non-exec with the right business badges and scars, they will immediately impact the areas you might not necessarily be very strong in.
For example, when I joined Guy’s previous company, my skill set filled an area of tasks that he didn’t (and still doesn’t) like to do – the detailed financial work.
However, this is only a small part of what the non-exec can do for your business. Their real-world experience can help bring a new level of order and professionalism to many of the processes you have in place.
They can restructure your board meeting agendas, set up quarterly strategy reviews, and make sure all your documentation is in order, which can be hugely helpful to a business, especially if you are looking at an exit.
I know it really helped us when Guy’s company was eventually acquired.
Asking the hard questions
Along with adding a new level of structure to your business, the non-exec is also that person who will ask you the hard-hitting questions when no one else will. That is why it’s absolutely vital to have a good relationship with your non-exec.
They aren’t just a quick-fix sort of person. The non-exec is much more long term, and so you need to make sure you get on well. That way, you can start to develop the type of relationship that Guy and I had. I could go to him and ask really tough questions without fear of offence and know those questions would be taken in the right way.
You have to let the CEO get on with running the business, but the non-exec needs to present them with options and look at how the business can improve things based on the overall vision.
Choosing a non-exec
The CEO and the non-exec need to have that spark and a level of mutual respect, which allows for open, honest conversations, so make sure you look for somebody with a degree of compatibility, good connectivity and some compassion – almost like you are choosing a spouse!
But that’s where that analogy ends…
When I first met Guy, we hit it off straight away. We had a lot of common interests and a similar outlook on life, which was crucial to our working relationship’s success.
He made the final decisions in the business and I just gave him some guidance when needed – that’s how these relationships need to work.
A great sounding board to have
The non-exec isn’t this panacea who can solve all things. As the CEO, you need to rely on your own gut feel, make your own decisions, and the non-exec acts as a sounding board for your ideas because not all of them will be good ones!
That’s why you must listen to your non-exec. You can only use one if you’re willing to take their advice. That doesn’t mean you will agree with 100% of what they say, but you need to consider what they are saying and why they are saying it.
This is where matching the right non-exec with the right CEO comes into play.
For example, Guy is a very impulsive person and likes to make quick decisions, but sometimes (as he freely admits) he’s a little too impulsive and relies on gut feel without too much research.
On the other hand, I’m a little more cautious and like spending more time on the details, which meant I could add that to Guy’s decision-making process.
Finding the CEO’s “blind spots”
Another benefit the non-exec can provide is in helping the CEO with their “blind spots”. Blind spots are things in the business that the CEO misses because they are so busy working on day-to-day tasks.
For example, one of Guy’s old blind spots was on underpricing, which I spotted and we worked together to fix. That had a catalytic effect on the overall revenue and growth of the business.
I think the big fear for any CEO, particularly when things are a little bit tight, is losing customers because you’ve put prices up. However, we ended up doubling our day rates, and we didn’t lose one client!
People knew that the value we were giving our clients was fabulous and were happy to pay a higher price for it.
We were “reassuringly expensive”, as I always liked to say.
A big boost of confidence
Knowing that you have a good non-exec who you enjoy being around, will ask the hard-hitting questions and call you out on your blind spots, will all combine to give you a lot more confidence in your business.
This is especially important during the tough times when things might be tighter than you’d like. Quite often, a non-exec has been through those periods themselves and will be able to instil that positive mindset to keep you ploughing forward and taking your team with you.
So, don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability and admit your struggles to your non-exec. That is how you get the best out of them.
Being a CEO can be a lonely place, and while you need to be robust for the rest of the company, you can share your feelings and worries with your non-exec, which is a really valuable thing for your sanity and the overall success of the business.
A non-exec needs to be emotionally invested in the business
Lastly, when it comes to your non-exec, it’s important to remember that every situation is different and unique, so credibility alone won’t cut it.
They need to be able to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, but at the same time, not get in the way of the CEO. A person with traits like that, who has some emotional investment in the company, is someone you should look for immediately because they can add a lot of value to your company culture.
For example, they can begin to mentor other team members on some valuable soft skills and do a lot to improve their confidence and overall development.
That is a part of the job I really enjoyed doing.
A good relationship is the most important thing
However, remember that all of these other benefits of a non-exec rely on you having a good personal relationship with them. There’s got to be rapport, there’s got to be respect and you’ve got to be comfortable sharing your vulnerability because, otherwise, it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.
So, don’t rush into bringing on a non-exec. It can take time to develop that relationship and, in reality, you might have to kiss a couple of frogs first before you find the right person!
I hope you have found this useful.
If you have any questions or would like to hear more about the role of a non-exec, check out episode 17 of our podcast “From the Factory Floor”. Alternatively, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.