At ADLIB we have previously written about the difference between mentors and coaches. Yes, there is a significant difference (see the article for what that is!). Another professional you may want to consider hiring that could help you take your tech business to the next level is someone that can support you through or towards growth: a non-executive director (NED).

This engagement is on a more permanent basis and brings the experience, wisdom and insights a non-executive director has gained running other organisations to your own company.

“A NED’s role is to be an objective ‘critical friend’ to a company”


According to the Bristol Media Barometer, a quarter of respondents have non-executive director support in place. Nice to see. So could such an appointment also be the answer to the questions that you aren’t even aware existed yet?

chris thurlingWe asked Chris Thurling (pictured right), who works as an independent strategist, coach, mentor and non-executive director to marketing, design and digital agencies, about his take on the role of a non-executive director within a small to medium business.

ADLIB: How would you define the role of a non-executive director? Specifically, what differentiates them from mentors and coaches?

Chris Thurling: A NED’s role is to be an objective ‘critical friend’ to a company and to provide advice in areas where he or she has particular experience and expertise. NEDs are used by executive directors as a sounding board for the overall company strategy; NEDs should also take a keen interest in the good governance of the firm, especially in terms of its legal and ethical responsibilities.

Over and above these formal responsibilities, most non-executives can be expected to offer more informal support, especially when it comes to opening up their ‘little black book’ of contacts. You should take it as read that your non-exec is well-connected and well-respected; but if you are employing a non-executive because you think they can be a de facto salesperson, then you’re likely to be disappointed. Any great contacts they bring should be seen as a bonus, not as the main reason for them getting the job.

Although many of the skills of coaching and mentoring overlap with the role of a NED, they are not the same thing. In a business context, coaching and mentoring tend to involve one-to-one relationships focused on the development of individual executives. In contrast, the non-executive’s remit is an oversight of the growth and well-being of the whole organisation. That said, it’s not uncommon for a non-exec to have a particularly close working relationship with the MD or CEO – and outside the boardroom, this may well involve formal or informal mentoring.

ADLIB: In your experience, at what stage do you think would it be a good time for an SME to consider adding a non-executive director to their team?

CT: There are no hard and fast rules, but I’d say that once your business gets to half a dozen people and/or beyond £250k gross profit, it would be worth thinking about employing a NED, especially if you have plans to grow. At the very least, once you are that size you should get into the discipline of holding a monthly board meeting (assuming you have fellow directors).

When my agency (3Sixty) was around this size I found that board meetings between my business partner and I often got postponed at the last moment, or simply didn’t happen at all. Once we employed a non-exec, we got into the discipline of working ‘on’ the business for at least half a day a month. I’m convinced this helped make us a better run, more profitable agency in the long run.

ADLIB: OK, if a business has made the decision that hiring a non-exec would be the best next step to move forward, where does one find one?

CT: First of all, draw up a list of what you are looking for in a non-exec. What sort of experience, background and skills would suit your business? How important is it that they share your business’ key values? Does it make a difference to you where the NED is based? If you have business partners, I strongly recommend that you get aligned on what you are looking for before you start your search.

“The best place to start your NED hunt is by asking trusted contacts for a recommendation”


The best place to start your NED hunt is by asking trusted contacts for a recommendation. If you are a member of a professional body (e.g. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), it might be worth asking them if they can point you in the right direction.

what-can-a-non-executive-director-do-for-your-comapnyAdditionally, well-established specialist recruiters such as ADLIB can be a very good source of attracting the right NED. Those that have operated at a senior level for a number of years have a sound understanding of the makeup of businesses and often know who to turn to for a specialist assignment.

Once you’ve got a shortlist, then treat appointing a NED as seriously as if you were employing any other senior member of staff. Assuming you are satisfied that the person you are interviewing is competent to do the job, the key thing is chemistry. Is there rapport? Can you imagine going to the pub with your NED after a board meeting? Will you be proud to announce this person as your non-exec? A three to four-hour board meeting will feel like a very long time if you are sat in a room with someone you don’t get on with.

ADLIB: Let’s say one found the perfect match. Now on to another tricky one, how do you put a value on that? Frankly: how much money should you offer?

CT: A non-exec role for a small to medium sized agency should involve between one to two days per month. For this you should expect your NED to attend monthly half day board meetings, read board papers in advance, attend one or two strategy away days per year and be available for ad hoc phone calls / email chats as and when required (within reason). The going rate for NEDs in this part of the world is somewhere in the region of £1k to £1.5k a day.

My own agency grew by 265% in the five years after we appointed our NED, and although it would be overstating things to claim all of that growth was down to this decision, I’m convinced we more than got our money’s worth over the years.

ADLIB: To get things off to a good start, are there any tips you could share to kick things off and to keep things on track when working together?

CT: To get the most out of your NED, make sure you are clear on the brief. Remember that the primary purpose of employing a NED is to help you reach your agency’s vision more quickly and less painfully than if you were working on your own. So, are you totally clear and aligned on your strategy? Have you translated this into a business plan and sales and marketing strategy?

If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no’, then you should get your NED to help you bring clarity on your direction, approach and roadmap before you do anything else with them.

Once you’ve got the foundations in place (i.e. a written strategy and business plan), here are a few tips for staying on track:

  • Develop a template board agenda with items you cover each month. Ask for additional items from board members a week or so in advance.
  • Make sure that you cover ‘minutes from the previous meeting as the first item on the agenda so that actions from last time are discussed.
  • Be diligent about taking minutes; there is no need to record the meeting verbatim, but at least make sure you capture key actions and decisions.
  • Keep a rolling record of actions. I find Trello a good collaborative tool for keeping track on what’s to do, what’s in progress and what’s been done.
  • Make sure you spend time talking about bigger picture strategic questions at least every quarter. Don’t get too bogged down in the day-to-day machinations of agency life.
  • Make sure you understand your management accounts. Ideally get whoever prepares them to write a commentary. There is always a story behind the numbers.
  • What are the key numbers for your agency? Develop a little Key Performance Indicators (KPI) dashboard that the board can reflect on, evaluate and analyse each month. Keep it simple. Don’t get overwhelmed with analysis paralysis.

Thank you, Chris, for sharing!

Image credit: Pexels