What's your problem? Becoming a non-exec

I've been offered a non-executive position on the board of a large company. Will my entrepreneurial background leave me feeling out of my depth?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 26 Jul 2012

Q. I've been asked to join a board as a non-exec, the first time that this has happened. I'm flattered as I'm young but I don't feel that my entrepreneurial background would add much to this corporate behemoth. I'm also unsure about how I would feel working for such a large organisation. On the other hand, I think I would learn a lot from the experience. Should I turn this offer down and wait for another from a business I feel more comfortable with? My mentor says I should take it, but I have real doubts.

Jeremy says: I agree with your mentor: I think you should accept. At the same time, I fully understand your doubts. Being a non-executive director, particularly of an extremely large company, is an experience quite different from any you'll have encountered before.

You say you're unsure about 'working for' such a large organisation. Well, in one way you clearly would be, but in another you wouldn't. Non-execs are more usefully called independent directors - and that's what you'd be expected to be. Unlike the executive directors, you won't have to fall in line, at least in public, behind the CEO. You may believe that someone as young as you, and with an entrepreneurial background, would have little to add to such an established enterprise: but it's precisely those differences that presumably led to your being invited. Unless the board, entirely cynically, wants to recruit you simply for window-dressing (to bring the average age down or balance the sexes), you'll be expected to bring a refreshing - almost innocent - perspective to company strategy. So you needn't feel diffident when asking very basic questions - 'Can you please remind me why we're doing this?': that's precisely your role.

Some independent directors, anxious to demonstrate their worth, rather tiresomely use board meetings as a stage on which to show off. I'm sure you won't do that. But if you have a particular thought or suggestion that could potentially embarrass the executives if sprung on them without warning, it's usually a lot more helpful to raise it with the CEO privately beforehand. In return, you'll certainly learn a lot. I doubt if you'd learn nearly as much from a business you felt more comfortable with.

Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office? is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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