How to make a difference as an independent director

Gerry Brown’s new book outlines how independent directors can increase boardroom diversity and enable people to make an impact.

Women on boards - women at the head of a boardoom


Helen Baker has been managing community health teams when she took a career break to look after her children. She wanted to keep her hand in so she took on some unpaid roles in the charity sector, hoping to make a difference. Her main criteria was that the roles needed to give her more responsibility than she had had in her previous job. That meant she could continue to stretch herself professionally and expand her career aspirations as well as making an impact.

She says: “The irony is, the more senior I have got in my career, the less I have been paid…However, I can make an impact and have influence though. Much more so than in any of the executive roles I previously held.”

Helen has not only chaired charity boards but also set up charities herself, including an organisation that helps young people with dementia. Her case study is featured in a new book on becoming an independent director [ID] – also known as a non-executive director or a trustee. The book, Making a difference, by Gerry Brown, chair of Novaquest Capital Management and family consultancy business GBrown Associates Led.

Brown says becoming an ID is the best way to affect change from within an organisation. He is keen to increase the diversity of IDs and the book encourages those with the right skills who, for instance, may have lost their jobs during the pandemic or been furloughed to take a role in shaping the strategic direction of businesses and other organisations.

Brown says being an ID is a good way to reconnect with the world of work, to build confidence and have an impact on the community. He argues that now is a good time to become an ID because employers are more open than in the past to volunteering and realise the need to make a positive social impact, particularly as we build back after Covid. They also understand, he says, that encouraging their employees to volunteer increases employee engagement as well as the range of skills they can draw on. He would like to see more employers offering paid days off for volunteering and actively encouraging employees to give back.

The book also calls on boards to cast their nets wider and think laterally about who they take on as directors, to focus more on the skills and experience people bring than on them having a previous track record as a director.

The practical issues

Brown outlines the skills needed to be an ID as well as the difference they can make in tackling areas ranging from corruption,  executive pay abuse and sexual harassment – and he doesn’t skirt over the time commitment involved, more so these days because IDs are expected to play a much more hands-on role, particularly with legal changes likely to come in making directors liable for the accuracy of their financial statements. In addition to responsibilities such as succession planning and setting rewards and remuneration, Brown drills down into specific committees that oversee everything from finances to nominations of executives and other IDs.

There is practical advice on how to approach getting an ID role, from what to write on your cv and using your networks to informal routes in via other volunteer roles and courses.

The book also covers advice for first-time IDs about the different types of boards, the interview process, troubleshooting and developing the ID role.

It ends with a clarion call to seize the opportunity that the post-Covid world offers to transform the way organisations are run and he says this will only happen if the organisations make diversity an active part of their recruitment strategy at all levels, including the boardroom, and people from all walks of life step forward as IDs. Brown writes: “While there is a finite number of corporate ID roles, there are enormous numbers of charity, social and voluntary boardroom positions on offer. Similarly, there are numerous pressure groups that are crying out for the help of qualified, talented people. Many are really struggling to make an impact and your involvement could transform their outlook.”

He ends: “If you want to make a difference, the first step is to commit to becoming an ID.”

*Making a difference: Leadership, change and giving back the independent director way by Gerry Brown is published by De Gruyter, price £29.99.



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