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Five ways that NEDs rose to the challenges of 2020

Karen Brice Karen Brice

2020 has changed the role of the non-executive director. Karen Brice summarises the learnings shared by our panel of NEDs during a recent webinar to highlight five ways you added value during this difficult time.

As part of our non-executive director (NED) webinar series, we sat down with experienced NEDs to explore how your roles changed over the last 12 months: what challenges you faced, the opportunities you identified and how you believe NEDs can be instrumental in building business resilience for the future.

Here we look at some of the key insights from that discussion, starting with where NEDs are adding value to businesses today and laying the foundations for tomorrow.

To learn how effective NEDs are helping maintain momentum and future focus in 2021, download our Corporate Governance Review >>

Our panel of experts

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Karen Brice
Director, Governance and Board Advisory, Grant Thornton UK
Mark Winlow
Chair and Senior Independent Director
Simon Lowe
Consultant and Chair of Grant Thornton Governance Institute
Sola Afuape
Non-executive director NHS
Annemarie Durbin
Non-Executive Director and Remuneration Committee Chair of Santander UK PLC, WHSmith PLC and Persimmon PLC

As their roles evolve, these are what NEDs consider to be the key themes on their mind: 

NEDs are taking stock

Although the ongoing challenge of COVID-19 cannot be diminished, now feels like an important moment to assess where we are, what has changed about the way we work and, crucially, what hasn’t.

"It's time to think about the things that are already great, that we want to keep, as well as the things we want to evolve and change" Annemarie Durbin

"We need new skills and techniques to apply the principles. Not new principles" Mark Winlow

Agility will continue to be an essential characteristic of successful businesses. But that agility and many of the other principles that have proved so valuable recently were on the agenda long before coronavirus. While the UK Corporate Governance Code has already been driving those changes, the ongoing events of 2020 into 2021 have proven to be a powerful catalyst for transformation.

There is a huge opportunity here for businesses to build on this momentum, increasing resilience and setting themselves up to succeed and thrive in the face of future disruption. Your role in that is crucial, not just in terms of support at board level, but in providing an ongoing and constructive challenge.

Get a better understanding of how market leaders are taking advantage of new ways of working, download our Corporate Governance Review 2020 >>

To challenge and support

"NEDs must get that balance right between operational agility and maintaining standards" Sola Afuape

Operational necessities continue to be the focus of executive teams – and a source of intense pressure. For NEDs working alongside them, the natural urge has been to help, to ‘share the load’. However, your true value is in balancing support with challenge.

"That challenge is so important and the non execs are the ones who can provide it" Simon Lowe

It's essential that any challenge is constructive. It needs to come from a place of understanding, with company interests at its heart. Crucially, it demands a robust relationship built on mutual trust. But at a point when remote working is the norm, how do you nurture those relationships? The answer lies in embracing technology, building trust and staying relevant.

How you stayed relevant as a NED

Your ability to step back and look beyond the day-to-day afforded you a valuable perspective providing the executive board with an outside eye.

"We have more time than our exec colleagues to be engaging in webinars, tracking industry trends, thinking outside the box and bringing that outside perspective in" Annemarie Durbin

This outside perspective is essential. It cements understanding, informs how and where the most-effective challenges can be made and helps identify potential risks on the horizon. It also helps bring voices into the boardroom that otherwise would be missing, which in turn shines a spotlight on a much bigger challenge – diversity and inclusion.

"The COVID experience has really emphasised the need to engage with the wider stakeholders, the employees and the communities that we’re actually operating in" Simon Lowe

Diversity and inclusion

‘I think the evolution of NEDs will be about bringing a greater focus on equality, diversity and inclusion so we can be more representative of the people we are trying to serve’ Sola Afuape

The importance of diverse viewpoints on the board has been underscored at almost every turn this year. Without it, you risk a boardroom full of like-minded people, offering the same solutions. What you need is the healthy tension of contrasting opinions, with a 360-degree view of the emerging landscape so you can set the most effective direction of travel.

"The different types of people you have in the room gives the board more gears, meaning you can take the hills or go fast on the flats" Mark Winlow

Improving board inclusion and diversity is a long-term challenge. But in immediate terms, you should be taking a proactive role in reaching out to communities, employees and peers affected by board decisions, and bringing those viewpoints back to the decision-making process. None of which is easy when you can’t meet face to face.

Read our article on how to take a proactive stance in developing a diverse and inclusive workforce to ensure you have the right skills for the future >>

Trust and communication

"Are we assuming that all the goodwill we have built up will continue?" Mark Winlow

"The NED role is like peeping through the letterbox into the house, what you see is restricted. You really need to build up trust" Simon Lowe 

As we’ve adapted to virtual working, we’ve lost many of the physical interactions we took for granted. These range from the obvious face-to-face meetings to the more-informal ways we connect at a workplace. All of those real-life interactions are valuable when it comes to building trust. Alternatives won’t materialise on their own. As NEDs, it's important for you to take the initiative in finding new ways of making those connections.

In terms of senior leadership, that means looking beyond old structures. Why continue with quarterly board meetings when more-regular arrangements, supplemented by informal catch-ups, could be more effective in driving robust, high-value conversations? NEDs can lead by example, going the extra mile and reaching out to make contact.

Get practical guidance on how to keep leadership and talent engaged while you navigate the challenges and opportunities of 2021 >>

This is true beyond the boardroom as well. NEDs are often well-positioned to nurture engagement with the wider stakeholders. This is a key role, as regular and open connection to employees, supply chains and the communities you seek to serve is essential for building transparency, inclusion and trust.

"Make sure distance doesn’t disconnect you from your primary purpose" Sola Afuape

Relationships are at the very heart of the NED role. Maintaining them has meant increasingly relying on one thing in particular: tech.

Embracing tech

Video conferencing has opened up huge possibilities in terms of building connections with a much-broader range of employees. Formal listening sessions and initiatives like the NHS’ Freedom to Speak Up are giving a voice to individuals who previously may have struggled for board-level access. Similarly, informal gossip or chitchat spaces are encouraging more personal connections around scheduled meetings. All of which offers you an important opportunity to learn.

"It’s extraordinary how open people are when they know your only job is to listen" Annemarie Durbin

But embracing technology is not without problems. Fatigue is real. There’s a need to retrain, particularly at more senior levels where people may be less digitally aware.

Most importantly, a digital default doesn’t work for everyone. Be mindful of the fact that, even as technology is connecting many of us, there are others without access who risk being left behind.

Technology is going to be integral to the new ways of working. NEDs need to ensure that where, when and how it is used helps build resilience and doesn’t end up alienating areas of the community you serve. Through challenge, scrutiny and support, you can help make certain that the foundations are in place for the company to move forward together.

Five ways you can add value

There is no doubt that your role is evolving. Based on insights from online discussions with NEDs, here are five practical actions that can help you address current challenges and lay the foundation for a more-resilient future.

1 Don’t just support, challenge – keep the challenge constructive, but make sure it's there

2 Be pro-active – go the extra mile to build relationships both with senior leadership and stakeholders

3 Stay relevant – bring outside perspective in to inform decision-making

4 Re-inforce your foundations – new ways of working require new skill sets

5 Be mindful – something that works for some might not work for all

For further information or support on governance and board advisory practice, contact Karen Brice.

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