The business power of non-executives

Clare Grist Taylor considers the important role of non-executive directors in publishing

Working with non-executive directors may seem alien to some IPG members. After all, they are often associated with huge, listed companies struggling with the complexities of full-scale corporate governance compliance. It all seems a million miles away from the world of lean, fleet-of-foot independent publishing. And who wants some outsider poking their nose into their business?

Maybe. But I would challenge all of us to think again about what non-execs actually do, and how valuable they can be to even the smallest outfit. In fact, I would argue that the experience-filling and supporting roles played by non-executives, and the credibility they bring, are even more crucial for smaller companies, who often have only limited access to the full range of expertise and skills needed to run any SME.

So, to help us all make that leap of faith, here are seven good reasons to add non-exec expertise to your business.

1 They bring an independent, external viewpoint and challenge

It is often hard to lift your head when focusing on the day to day. Non-execs can help you to see the wood for the trees, offering an external, objective worldview that sharpens vision and priorities. They will ask the right—and sometimes challenging—questions, provide external benchmarks and test your assumptions and judgements.

2 They offer specialist skills and knowledge

You may not be able to employ another senior member of staff, or afford to have specific expertise like legal, employment or funding advice on tap—but non-execs can fill the gap. For a reasonable monthly retainer or fee, it is an investment in honest strategic advice that is well worth making.

3 They provide strategic direction

A key role of the non-exec is to help you identify and navigate your strategic priorities like growth, diversification or succession planning: high-level decision making that invariably benefits from other perspectives.

4 They hold you to account

There’s nothing like knowing that a meeting or phone call is coming up to hold you to account, whether it’s connected to overall strategy, performance, progress on key projects or issues like risk. Having someone engaged with your business, but not involved in day-to-day management, helps you stay focused on what really matters.

5 They can make you look good and help build connections

Having non-execs on board can be a strong indictor to funders that you are a credible, thoughtful and well-run business. Most will also bring useful contacts and access to networks that you might not otherwise be able to reach.

6 They can mediate and broker

In small teams it is often difficult to resolve issues and clashes with and between co-owners, colleagues, partners or suppliers. Non-execs can mediate and broker, bringing some much-needed objectivity to sometimes heated situations.

7 They offer wise counsel and support

I once heard a non-exec chair say that his number one priority was to support his CEO. Running an independent company can sometimes be lonely and stressful, so having a trusted sounding board and a safe haven for sharing and sanity checking can be invaluable, especially when times are tough or you are going through change.

If you are already sold on the idea, or this blog has helped to change your mind, the next stage is to find likely candidates. As with other appointments, think about a role description and person spec and identify people who meet your criteria. Don’t be shy about approaching potential non-execs who might be able to help. Most will be flattered to be asked, and they can only say no. But do be clear up front that they understand their role, the time commitment that is expected, the terms on which you will collaborate and how your business operates. A good induction programme will help your non-execs hit the ground running.

Personally, I have found my non-exec and mentoring work to be my best ever form of personal development, and it’s a privilege to work with the organisations I support.

Clare Grist Taylor is a publisher and leader with more than 30 years’ experience in publishing. She is a sub-committee member at the University of Wales Press, and a trustee of the Montgomeryshire Literary Festival and the London Museum of Water & Steam.