How to become an Executive Director in 6 steps

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

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One of the most frequently recurring themes among my mentoring clients is “how do I get a seat on the board?” Some clients are looking to take the next step up to be Executive Directors, others are looking at NED (non-executive director) roles. Neither is an easy step to make and few people really think it through.

Hopefully I can give some advice that has helped my mentoring clients over the year.

In this blog I will deal with becoming an executive director.

1. Do you want the risks and liabilities of a director?

Firstly understand what becoming an executive director means. Yes, it is the next step up the ladder but that step comes at a price. If you are on the board of a company then you have liabilities for the operation of that company that you do not have as an employee. The IOD does a good factsheet on the Duties, responsibilities and liabilities of directors. If you are on the board of a public company you will become visible, your pay will be in the annual report. You will be responsible for more than just your area of expertise, you are responsible with your fellow board members for the strategy and governance of the company.

2. Executives need to understand governance

If this is what you want to do then start learning about governance. There are plenty of short courses that will help you (the CBI run some good ones). If you can, talk to NEDs either on your board or any others you may know and get a view from them as to how the board operates.

3. Develop your ‘brand’ and promote yourself

The difference between an executive director and being an expert in a particular area, say finance or marketing means that you need a much broader view. So to prepare yourself it is important that you do a great job in your speciality but that is not sufficient. You need to work to get a wider view of the company. Do not think that people will notice you doing a great job and promote you. You have to promote yourself (there are some tips in this blog on personal branding and becoming recognized – it’s aimed to help women but the principles are just as valid for men). This is hard but you have to do it. It also means putting yourself forward for projects that are outside your role, taking risks and getting noticed.

March of the robots...

4. Understand change and the wider picture in your market

Understand what is changing in your company’s market in technology, globalisation and market structure and how it will affect your world. Become an expert on change. I wonder, did anyone in the BBC notice that the non-compete clause in Jeremy Clarkson’s contract was irrelevant? It said he could not work for another UK media company for a year. No-one writing that contract – or managing the broadcaster’s asset value – ever thought about his joining a company (Amazon) that was not in broadcasting, that was not in the UK but could effectively stream to every screen in the UK. It does not seem to have crossed their minds (read more about some of these issues in a white paper I have written March of the Robots…into the Boardroom. People who can understand the wider picture have real strategic value.

5. Be strategic

Understand the strategy of your company, how it operates now and how it might need to change in the future. One of the most career limiting things that can be said about you as you move up the ladder is “Not a strategic thinker”.

6. Manage upwards

The fact that your team thinks you are wonderful will not get you promoted – no one will ask them. This is true of all promotions. Create a stakeholder map of all the people who might influence your promotion, and then work out a strategy to influence them.

None of these things guarantees you a seat on the board but they will go a long way to getting you there.

Good luck and let me know how you get on – and if you have further questions. Happy to help.

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