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Unlocking success: the art of onboarding Non-Executive Directors

Ian Durant, Non-Executive Chair

It’s 3am and I’m in a seven-and-a-half-ton delivery truck in Wales, transporting the day’s products for sale from the bakery to Greggs shops in South Wales, one cage of specially selected items for each shop. It is cold, wet and dark. When I said I wanted to take the temperature of the business, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind.


To explain, the year was 2004, I was the Non-Executive Chair of Greggs and the ambition of this trip was to get a better understanding of business operations that are often unseen by a senior leader. And when I think back to that chilly morning, I can still smell the diesel hanging in the early morning fog in Barry and taste the hot tea prepared by the shop manager at 5.30am, as she did every day of the week for the driver and, on this day, for me. It’s little gestures like that – the camaraderie and helpfulness between colleagues – that you won’t find on a balance sheet, but which are essential to a successful business. And which proved useful in later strategic conversations around the board table.


Because understanding a business is a journey of discovery, from top to bottom. And it’s something that every new Non-Executive Director (NED) should undertake. Over the years, I’ve been a NED and I’ve also helped appoint and worked with many NEDs. What follows, then, are a few pointers I’ve picked up that will assist the introduction of a NED into a business.


Start with structure

NEDs often come from completely different industries and also have limited tenures, typically up to nine years. A structured onboarding process is essential to prepare them for their roles, ensuring they understand the company and its dynamics. This induction programme – which evolves over the first year – is usually organised by the Company Secretary.


It’s about making sure that they are given enough insight to put the pieces together in the business and begin to understand how it works – and where the challenges and opportunities lie. At another level, a well-managed onboarding is an important introduction to the people of the business and, crucially, not just the people who sit around the boardroom table. It’s key for them to meet individuals right across the company and find out more about their roles and the interconnectedness of the business itself.


It’s also an opportunity for the business to understand what sort of person they are and how they might best contribute. And if you don’t have a rigorous onboarding process, it may take a NED much longer to get to the point of being able to contribute and to feel comfortable that they understand the dynamic of the business.


Setting expectations

I’ve been asked before about how long it should take for a NED to be ready to add value. Is it two weeks? Is it a month? Is it six months? The truth is, there is no specific timetable for it. But one piece of advice I would give NEDs is not to feel pressure to make an immediate impact at their first board meeting. Trying to do so can imply a degree of arrogance and a lack of understanding of the business’s dynamics.


Most NEDs, particularly those with extensive executive experience, are used to delivering results quickly. However, joining a board as a NED is a different experience. It is about making an impression, but that impression is as much about listening as it is about talking. It is about tuning yourself into the discussion and the tone and topics of the discussion around the table.


Defining success

So, what are the company’s expectations during the onboarding process of a NED, and how do they know they have done it effectively? The smartest boards allow NEDs to follow their interests and instincts into areas they are familiar with. For example, a marketing NED might quickly identify opportunities for improvement in a business that is less mature in its marketing expertise. The management team and executives in the business are often eager to grasp the insights that NEDs with diverse experiences can provide and this pull should be encouraged.


However, for NEDs to be effective, they need to understand the socio-politics of the management team and, in turn, be understood as individuals with their own styles and approaches. So quickly building trust and establishing personal relationships is essential for NEDs to navigate the organisation effectively.


As a Chair, a key concern is whether the NEDs are adding value to the business. Are they making a positive impact on the company’s strategic direction? Are they helping the executive team make better decisions? And are they enjoying the experience, do they exhibit real interest in the business and are they beginning to build credibility with the management team. These are the primary indicators of a successful onboarding process.


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Common misconceptions

One of the most common misconceptions about NEDs is that their role is unclear. Indeed, I once heard an executive colleague refer to them as similar to the royal family – they look decorous, but no one is quite sure what they are there for. One thing to keep an eye on is that the more NEDs penetrate the management structure of a business, the easier it is for them to be seen to intrude in the operational management role. “Eyes on, hands off” might be a way of describing the aspiration. This is why it is crucial to set clear parameters and expectations for the NED role within the organisation.


An ongoing process of communication is necessary to help the executive team and employees understand the NED’s purpose and contributions. NEDs should not hesitate to clarify their roles and the value they bring to the table. And to do this repeatedly, if necessary.


The role of curiosity

Curiosity is one of the defining features of a good NED. They need to be deeply interested in the business to bring out insights and suggest new ways of doing things. Triangulating information from different sources is another critical aspect of a NED’s role. It helps paint a more complete picture of the business and enables NEDs to ask the right questions and provide informed guidance.


That said, while it is essential for NEDs to understand the business deeply, it is equally important for them to be sensible about their requests for information or meetings – and respect others’ time and business periods.


As I mentioned previously, NEDs should avoid feeling pressure to make an immediate impact or appearing too executive. Building trust with the senior management team is crucial, as it helps NEDs understand who to approach in the organisation and how to address queries or interests in specific aspects of the business. Also, how to bring challenge in an effective way.


Flexibility in onboarding

Flexibility is crucial in the onboarding process for NEDs. It allows NEDs to explore areas of the business that pique their interest and adapt the programme to their unique needs and backgrounds. A rigid one-size-fits-all approach may not be effective in helping NEDs truly understand the business. Additionally, flexibility allows NEDs to revisit and deepen their understanding of different aspects of the business over time. As they settle into their roles, their perspectives may evolve, and they may discover new areas where they have questions and can make meaningful contributions.


In conclusion, the onboarding of NEDs is a nuanced process that requires careful planning and consideration. It is not just about providing them with information – it is about immersing them in the different areas and operations which are likely to exist in the business. Whether that means joining an early morning delivery in Wales, working a till on a shop floor or taking part in key boardroom discussions, the journey of a NED is a dynamic and ever-evolving one, shaped by curiosity, communication, and commitment to the organisation’s goals. Get the onboarding right and you could add a powerful, transformational force to your business.

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