FROM CORPORATE AFFAIRS & INVESTOR RELATIONS TO NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM EXECUTIVE TO NON-EXECUTIVE
From Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations
to Non-Executive Director
COMPANY BOARDS ARE UNDER PRESSURE FROM GOVERNMENT, REGULATORS AND NGOS TO ENSURE BROADER REPRESENTATION IN THEIR COMPOSITION IN ORDER TO MEET DEMANDS FOR A MORE EQUAL AND DIVERSE SOCIETY. CRITICISED IN SOME QUARTERS FOR BEING TOO “PALE, MALE AND STALE,” BOARDS ARE GRADUALLY EMBRACING A WIDER MIX OF GENDER AND RACIAL ORIENTATION, THOUGH REPRESENTATION OF SEXUAL AND DISABILITY MINORITIES IS STILL SOME WAY BEHIND.
Non-executive positions have accounted for many of the changes. Some companies, of course, have admirable equal-opportunity talent pathways through executive positions to the board, with appointments benchmarked by external searches and a commitment from the top down to ensure genuine board diversity. However, adding to the ranks of the experienced non-executive directors (NEDs) lending their independent counsel under the watchful eye of a non-executive chairman represents the quickest and easiest way of ensuring that boards comply with changing expectations of their make-up.
This represents a major opportunity for corporate affairs and investor relations professionals. Non-executive directors have traditionally been drawn from the legal and accountancy professions, as well as industry and business. Yet, revolutionising the mix of boards means that other disciplines are increasingly being explored as valuable sources of board wisdom and insight
“Demonstrating the value and abilities of communications and IR professionals at the heart of corporate decision making structures”
In this context, corporate communications and investor relations professionals have a valuable role to play, opening career possibilities that were previously few and far between. NED positions are beginning to be gained by existing senior communications or investor relations leaders who see them as opportunities to broaden their experience and prepare themselves for possible executive C-suite positions.
Others are meanwhile attracted to portfolio careers, following the path taken by many former executive directors in assembling a number of complementary NED positions that give them new challenges and opportunities following lengthy careers.
But what is the future of this developing trend for communications and investor relations officers to extend their roles in this way? How large a flow can be established? Are boards taking this new class of NED seriously and valuing the different skill-sets they bring to the role? And exactly how different are these insights? What opportunities do they open up for communications and investor relations officers to fully bring their experience at the centre of companies’ reputations and brands – some of their most valuable assets – to bear on discussions of balance sheets, strategy and long-term planning?
At Broome Yasar, we have predicted and witnessed this emerging trend of communications and investor relations professionals escaping the risk of operating in silos to make valuable contributions at board level. As the leading specialist executive search firm in corporate affairs and investor relations, we regularly advise and counsel leaders in communications and IR who are seeking career advancement.
At the same time, we lead executive searches for such professionals and are extremely well-positioned to see and understand the challenges of the transition from executive to non-executive, the widening of view that is required and the ways in which communications and IR professionals can demonstrate their value and abilities at the heart of corporate decision-making structures. We believe it is an exciting development that offers much potential for career advancement and diversification and for this reason we have made it the subject of our third major industry report into the changing career paths of communications and investor relations leaders.
Our first report in this series, “From Corporate Affairs to Corporate Leader: Today’s Corporate Affairs Director, Tomorrow’s CEO?” examined the path of ten former corporate communications professionals who rose to fill chief executive and managing director roles across some of our largest companies and organisations. The second study, entitled “From Investor Relations to Business Leader: The Pathway to CEO?” profiled another 13 executives, exploring their routes from IR to chairman, chief executive, finance director and other senior business positions.
It is clear that this third major trend that we have identified for this report is different in character and depth than the first two. Like chief executive and senior C-suite positions, board membership as a non-executive director requires experience across a range of industries and sectors. It necessitates acumen in financial and strategic understanding and means that communications and IR professionals with aspirations to follow this route need to step out of their comfort zones and gain hands-on experience early in their careers that they can utilize in their boardroom advice later.
Yet the unique role at the very centre of an organisation’s reputation and brand challenges that communications and investor relations executives occupy may well mean that progress to NED positions develops from its current humble roots to become one of the most common career paths.
Handling communications means constant exposure to the views of other, often less well-informed but highly voluble stakeholders with ready and sometimes contentious views about companies, their activities and prospects. These corporate executives therefore play key dual roles in disseminating and controlling messages and feeding back early and advanced warning signs of opinions, campaigns and popular dissent that represent major risks to be understood, controlled and minimised.
Similarly, the job of an investor relations professional involves close relationships with key financial stakeholders and an intimate understanding of who holds the levers of influence and power in a shareholder base. IR personnel play vital roles at company results, trading updates, roadshows, fundraisings, stock exchange flotations and mergers and acquisitions, plus crisis management, when necessary.
These two sectors therefore can potentially provide a rich vein of experienced professionals with the skills and abilities to not only satisfy desires for company boards to be more diverse in their make-up but to also utilise their insights to bring genuine competitive advantage to their employers.
These are early days for this new career route and its challenges and opportunities need to be understood. By exploring the issues raised, through interviews with ten communications and investor relations professionals who have made the move into non-executive positions, we hope to make it a more-travelled route for both the career paths of these talented employees and the corporate futures that they can help guide.
Interviewed for this Report
Former group corporate affairs director, TP ICAP plc and group communications director, Tesco plc and Prudential plc
Former group communications director, Kingfisher plc
Former managing director, SABMiller Europe and former corporate affairs director, SABMiller plc, Railtrack plc and Scottish Power plc
Former corporate relations director, Diageo plc and group communications director, BAE Systems plc
Former executive chairman, MHP Communications and chief executive, Penrose Financial
Former mining analyst and institutional equity sales, Credit Suisse and JPMorgan
Former group director, strategy & implementation, easyJet plc and investor relations director, SABMiller plc and Diageo plc
Former director of corporate communications, JPMorgan Cazenove
Former director of communications, The Home Office and The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and publicity commissioner for the BBC
Former head of corporate communications, British Airways and communications adviser to the UK Prime Minister
“ NED positions are beginning to be gained by existing senior communications or IR leaders who see them as opportunities to broaden their experience and prepare themselves for possible executive C-suite positions”
An Evolution in the
COMPANY BOARDS HAVE NOT TRADITIONALLY SPREAD THEIR NET FOR THE RECRUITMENT OF NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS WIDELY ACROSS THE CORPORATE AFFAIRS AND INVESTOR RELATIONS DEPARTMENTS OF THE UK’S LARGEST COMPANIES. THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY A CRITICISM AND IT PROBABLY HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH ACCUSATIONS OF CRONYISM AND OLD BOY NETWORKS. OTHER DISCIPLINES SUCH AS FINANCE, ACCOUNTANCY AND LAW SIMPLY PROVIDED DEEPER POOLS OF CANDIDATES WHO UNDERSTOOD CORPORATE LIFE AND WERE WELL-VERSED IN ITS PROCESSES AND NETWORKS.
Times are changing, however. The financial crisis of 2008 and earlier scandals such as the collapse of Enron and erosion of shareholder value at once-proud companies like Marconi led to serious questions about the experience, character and qualities of corporate leadership. Rapid societal changes posed other questions about the lack of diversity in boardrooms, with a spotlight thrown uncomfortably on the chronic under-representation of women and ethnic minorities on quoted company boards.
“Times have changed. Journalists and shareholders want facts and rigour and communications and investor relations professionals are well-versed in providing them”Rebecca Shelley
Since then, a welter of regulatory changes, culminating with a new Combined Code of Corporate Governance, have sought to further control executive egos and excesses. Increased diversity is now increasingly seen as not only being fair, equal and right but also as fostering better performance and decision-making. The past exclusion of many of our brightest communications and investor relations professionals from the ranks of non-executive directors cannot be said to have ever been as iniquitous as the underrepresentations just described. However, there is little disputing that the numbers were sparse.
“Historically, corporate affairs was seen as bottom of the food chain in terms of people who would add value to a board as a non-executive director,” says Rebecca Shelley, former group corporate affairs director at interdealer broking company TP ICAP and a non-executive director at Sabre Insurance Group. “As chairmen put boards together and considered what skills they would need, they usually looked instead at executives who had run profit and loss accounts or worked in brand management, technology or human resources. That was the pool in which they traditionally fished for non-execs.
“Even now, after all the attention that has been given to the issue of a company’s reputation, only around half of all FTSE100 companies even have a communications director on their executive committee. So at this stage we are only seeing baby steps in terms of communications and IR leaders being seen to add value.”
Sue Clark, formerly managing director at SABMiller Europe and now non-executive director of Icelandic food processing group Bakkavor, Dutch paint company AkzoNobel, UK drinks firm Britvic and tobacco group Imperial Brands, believes that chairmen who do look in the communications and IR sectors for NEDs find “a rich vein of talent”.
“All my positions came through headhunters, because of the pressure from the corporate governance lobby for boards to be seen to be looking at a diverse slate of candidates,” she says. “The skills of communications and investor relations professionals are highly relevant to non-executive positions. You’re used to working in an advisory to the C-suite. You’re used to looking at the big strategic picture and you’re very much in tune with what stakeholders are thinking both externally and internally.
“Boards are now looking for a broader skills-set and a deep understanding of what drives, enhances and protects corporate reputations”Sue Clark
“You’re also used to looking at the breadth of the business, understanding the business model and knowing where the points of value are. I think corporate affairs and IR directors are actually much better placed as NEDs than people who have had executive careers in operations.”
As Rebecca Shelley adds: “Historically communications people could be seen inside big public companies as just passing on messages and not providing added value. Times have changed. Journalists and shareholders want facts and rigour and communications and investor relations professionals are well-versed in providing them.”
There is increasing recognition, however, that a contribution to an organisation’s leadership from people with quality communications and IR experience can help companies frame how they articulate their strategy and investment case.
“Your role is to be the external eyes and ears of the company; the person who knows how the group is perceived outside its walls and can bring real perspective to decision-making”Charlotte Lambkin
“The very nature of the role of corporate affairs director is unique,” says Charlotte Lambkin, the former BAE Systems and Diageo corporate affairs director who is now a non-executive director at Intertrust Group. “Your role is to be the external eyes and ears of the company; the person who knows how the group is perceived outside its walls and can bring real perspective to the decision-making.
“Boards can get quite insular and focused on themselves, which is necessary for self-improvement and finding better ways of operating. But you do also need somebody who can identify what people outside the company say and feel about it and bring that dimension right into the boardroom.”
Change is being driven by tightened corporate governance scrutiny in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as well as by rapidly-evolving societal norms and the expectant demands of the future Millennial workforce, motivated by issues, fairness and equality.
“There’s a big focus on boards setting and then measuring progress towards purpose, mission, vision and values,” notes Sue Clark. “The emphasis is much more around what external stakeholders think about the company, employee engagement and two-way communications, all of which are very much in the sweet spot of what corporate affairs and IR directors are very much thinking about.
“Then when you think about the big tricky issues for boards like mergers and acquisitions, transformation, again corporate affairs and investor relations leaders have also been right at the heart of those.
“I think boards are genuinely grappling with the whole issue of diversity of thought. After the 2008 crisis, boards recognised that there had been a certain amount of group-think. I think boards are now looking for a broader skills-set and a deep understanding of what drives, enhances and protects corporate reputation.”
In some sectors, additional regulatory change is aiding an increased role for communication and investor relations professionals on company boards. In the world of personal finance, for example, new rules stemming from the Retail Distribution Review (RDR) have put investment trusts on a level playing field with open-ended funds for the first time, outlawing the use of intermediaries in favour of direct sales with transparent commissions.
“This has created a real opportunity for NEDs in the sector with experience of communications and investor relations,” says Gay Collins, a co-founder of corporate reputation consultancy Montfort Communications and previously financial PR agency Penrose who is now also a non-executive director at JP Morgan Global Growth & Income Investment Trust.
“Investment trusts did not previously have to sell themselves, so their boards often didn’t contain many people with a lot of experience in that. They now have no choice but to do so in a transparent and well-signposted way, so they are increasingly looking for NEDs with experience of marketing or communications.
“In the past, investment trust NEDs were often drawn from accountants and fund managers, with nobody on the board focused on the marketing of the trust because that wasn’t what people on the board felt they should be doing. However, RDR means that investment trusts now need to market themselves and I have certainly seen an increase in the number of communications people serving as NEDs on their boards.
“It’s been a real boost for the communications industry because we are now recognised as trusted advisers in this area.”
Nigel Wightman, Gay Collins’ chairman at JP Morgan Global Growth & Income, agrees that the importance of communications skills has often been overlooked when making board appointments.
“We needed a skill-set that could tell us what the company looked like from the other side. A high-level, well-connected City experience that understood regulation and how the buy-side and sell-side operate”Patrick SnowballCHAIRMAN, SABRE INSURANCE GROUP
“Boards rightly need NEDs with relevant investment experience in order to engage with managers about the investment strategy being pursued,” he says. “They also need at least one NED with accounting experience to oversee the production of the annual and semi-annual accounts.
“However, in my view, boards also need distribution or communication skills to make sure that existing and, crucially, prospective shareholders get relevant and timely information. Since Gay joined the board, she has helped us significantly to ‘raise our game’ in all aspects of distribution at a time when we were making some important strategic changes to the trust.”
Patrick Snowball, Rebecca Shelley’s chairman at Sabre Insurance Group, believes the European Union’s second Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID II) regulations are also fostering a requirement on boards for additional NED skill-sets.
“People have underestimated MiFID II’s long term impact,” he says. “In many ways, it is going to negate a huge amount of the role of the corporate broker, who was traditionally the person hired by a company to sell a company’s story. At the same time, a new Combined Corporate Governance code, an updated Companies Act and the latest takeover regulations are putting an awful lot more pressure on boards to ‘get it right’. If you’re not careful, with the diminishing role of the corporate broker and the sell-side analyst, you’re increasingly divorcing yourself from an essential part of the communications network in the new world. “At Sabre, we went through an initial public offering in 2017 and needed a skill-set that could tell us what the company looked like from the other side. When most of the board has no public company experience, it’s incredibly important to ensure that from a NED’s position the board has that input. We needed high-level, well-connected City experience that understood regulation and how the buy-side and sell-side operate. That’s why Rebecca has been so important for us.”
Hélène Vletter-van Dort, Charlotte Lambkin’s chair at Intertrust, says she searched specifically for a NED from a communications background after the company floated on the Euronext exchange in Amsterdam in 2015. “There’s probably a difference in the financial industry when it comes to the composition of the board because there are so many requirements,” she says. ”
It’s quite hard to almost afford to get someone on board with a slightly different profile who isn’t an expert in something that has to do with the financial industry. But I had a very specific profile in mind because Intertrust was newly-listed and had nobody on the board with communications and investor relations experience. We were looking for someone who could help us upgrade that. Charlotte has really proved that it is very useful to have somebody in that role on the supervisory board.”
for Corporate Affairs and
Investor Relations Professionals
THE EMERGENCE OF A GROWING GROUP OF CURRENT AND FORMER CORPORATE AFFAIRS AND INVESTOR RELATIONS LEADERS IN THE NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR COMMUNITY IS TESTAMENT TO THE RECOGNITION OF THE RELEVANCE OF THE ROLES IN BOARDROOMS. ALTHOUGH PROGRESSIVE CHAIRMEN ARE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THIS CAREER MOVEMENT, IT HAS A GREAT DEAL FURTHER TO GO BEFORE IT CAN BE IDENTIFIED AS A MEANINGFUL TREND AND MANY CHAIRS WILL STILL NEED CONVINCING OF THE MERITS OF PROFESSIONALS FROM THESE DISCIPLINES.
The need for boards to demonstrate true diversity in today’s genderliberated and ethnically-diverse political and social culture is a key driver. However, this is currently demonstrating a positive bias to female candidates, perhaps to compensate for the continuing chronic shortage of women in boardrooms.
“It wouldn’t be a board’s natural appointment to select a corporate affairs leader to a NED role unless it was desperate to get diversity at board level,” says one non-executive director interviewed for this report. Sue Clark believes such political correctness is definitely responsible for the preponderance of women among the NEDs from communications and IR interviewed for this report.
“Most of the communications or investor relations professionals who have found non-executive directorships are women and that is no surprise to me whatsoever,” she says. “It is clearly part of the push to have women on boards. Men in communications and investor relations are competing for NED roles with former chief executives, finance directors and chief operating officers, whereas good women candidates probably almost have the field to themselves.”
Securing NED roles at major companies is still highly-competitive, however, even if political correctness is on the side of your gender. Julia Simpson, chief of staff at International Airlines Group and a former head of corporate communications at British Airways, oversees a vast range of operations from financial communications to government affairs, cyber-security and human resources in her executive position. She also sits as an executive member of the boards of IAG subsidiaries British Airways and Iberia.
However, she reports that she found it difficult to secure a nonexecutive directorship after identifying such a role as an aspiration to help the next stage of her career. Now a non-executive director of Aim-listed telecoms group The People’s Operator, she says the role did not come to her easily.
“In the end, the NED role that I was appointed to came about through a personal contact,” she says. “I went round lots of headhunters but actually found it very hard to find one. Unless you have had profit and loss account experience, with responsibility for a big bottom line, making you a potential chair of the audit or remuneration committee, it is tricky to generate much interest.
“My boss at IAG said he always wanted me to have a NED role but only one. Good chief executives know that it is helpful for their top team to have experience of other boards. It brings a wholly different perspective. I actually think I’ve learned more there than if I had been a NED on a big FTSE100 board.”
Charlotte Lambkin also made a conscious decision to add a nonexecutive directorship to her armoury while she was at Diageo but found that it took a while to secure the right appointment. “My NED position came around through luck, circumstance and opportunity,” she says. “There are still a lot of traditional attitudes in company boardrooms around the characteristics that they are expecting of non-executive directors.
“People told me I was too young to be a non-executive director. I had been an executive committee member of multi-billion-pound companies in my 30s, yet somehow when it came to entering the old-fashioned world of non-executive directors, I was seen as too young. Until you do it yourself, you’re never completely sure how you’re going to fit in but you really do have the skills that are needed and you are actually very much appreciated when they are brought to bear on a boardroom.
“We do want more diverse boardrooms but we also need to have a more diverse pipeline of managers coming up through businesses”Carole Cable
“I do think there is a real role for communications and investor relations leaders on plc boards because they have not traditionally had anyone on them with real experience of managing reputation. This remit is increasingly important today with all the pressures that companies are facing and yet many boards still have insufficient expertise in this area.”
It is clear that developing specialisms and deep knowledge of certain sectors can dramatically increase the chances of leaders with communications and IR experience landing non-executive positions. Carole Cable, a partner at financial PR consultancy Brunswick, believes that her time advising natural resources companies as joint head of the firm’s energy and resources offer played a major role in securing her two non-executive positions, as well as a voluntary role as chairman of Women in Mining.
She is a non-executive director of Belgian listed mining and metals group Nyrstar and CQS Natural Resources Growth and Income investment trust – the results of a deliberate strategy to target the sector. “My portfolio is all to do with natural resources which is not an accident given my background in the sector,” she says. “I think that having a deep sector knowledge and network can be an advantage as often Boards are looking for directors who understand the complexity of their business environment as well as the business itself, to create value.
“Good chief executives know that it is helpful for their top team to have experience of other boards. It brings a wholly different perspective”Julia Simpson
“When going from an executive position to a non-executive role, you have to figure out how to make that leap and in my experience it’s about being a specialist either in a sector or a profession or both. I have been in the mining industry for over 20 years so I may be perceived as knowing something about the sector and I think that gets me in the room.”
Carole Cable feels that specialism is increasingly important for agency communications professionals who may be viewed as having less experience than their counterparts in-house as corporate communication or IR directors. “A lot of agency communications professionals tend to go onto boards in the arts, schools, charities and think tanks where their skill at communication and managing reputation is more valued. I think this is evolving as companies are having to address the changing social and environmental landscape, and non-financial skills like communication has become more important than ever before,” she says. “It helps to have a specialism within your communications label, whether it is of a sector or skill as it can be hard to get noticed if you don’t have that to offer.”
“ All of my NED roles are with investment trusts so I am sure my direct experience of selling mutual funds and then running a business that was selling and managing them was as much to do with my being hired as my experience in corporate communications”Kate Bolsover
Kate Bolsover, who was formerly director of corporate communications at stockbroker JPMorgan Cazenove, claims that specialist sector knowledge was the key to her appointments as chairman of Fidelity Asian Values and Invesco Perpetual Enhanced Income investment trusts and non-executive director at Montenaro UK Smaller Companies Investment Trust.
“At JPMorgan Cazenove I was director of corporate communications,” she says, “and my role was as much about making sure that we had very limited press coverage as it was about ensuring the accuracy of that coverage. I suspect that my time running mutual funds for Barings and unit trusts at Cazenove was as helpful as my experience in communications in getting the job. It wasn’t necessarily as helpful once I had got the job but all of my NED roles are with investment trusts so I am sure that my direct experience of selling mutual funds and then running a business that was selling and managing them was as much to do with my being hired as my experience in corporate communications.”
“Real experience of managing reputation is increasingly important today with all the pressures that companies are facing and yet many boards still have insufficient expertise in this area”Charlotte Lambkin
Opportunity for non-executive directorships does not always mean positions at major publicly-listed companies, though these still have the highest profile. Yasmin Diamond, executive vice-president for global corporate affairs at InterContinental Hotels Group, found her NED role as a member of the board of trustees for The British Council. She believes it was her mix of public and private sector experience, having previously been director of communications at The Home Office and The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as well as publicity commissioner for the BBC that won her the position.
“It wasn’t really linked to my current job,” she says. “The British Council wanted to expand the scope of its board to include people who really understood corporate affairs and communications because it was going through a significant transformation programme. They wanted someone who had private sector commercial experience as well as a background in the public sector and I am an odd mixture in that respect.
“You’ve got to understand what are the key things that a board member needs to focus on, as opposed to what the executive directors are focusing on”Yasmin Diamond
“To do a NED role, I think you have to have an interest in the company or the sector. I personally wouldn’t want to work in a sector of industry just to become a NED without having some appreciation of or interest in that industry.”
from Executive to NED
WHETHER THE REASON FOR TAKING A NONEXECUTIVE DIRECTORSHIP IS TO EQUIP ONESELF WITH AN ADDITIONAL SKILL-SET OR TO BUILD A FULL-TIME PORTFOLIO CAREER, THERE IS LIKELY TO BE A PERIOD OF TRANSITION TO THE DIFFERENT DEMANDS OF THE JOB.
“It is massively different” says Sue Clark, who began her career in investor relations at National Power before becoming corporate affairs director at Scottish Power, Railtrack and finally SABMiller. She says she decided to embark upon a portfolio career after SABMiller was taken over in 2017. “As a NED, you’re much more in an advisory capacity and you don’t have your hands on the levers of the business like you do as an executive director,” she states. “You have to develop a whole new range of skills in terms of how you influence the executives, recognising that you’re no longer in charge of the daily business.”
Yasmin Diamond believes her public sector experience made the transition from communications to non-executive position easier. “It’s different,” she says. “I definitely still had a learning curve because I had never been a non-executive director before. You’ve got to get under the skin of the organisation and how it works. You’ve got to get into the dynamics of the board that you’re on and build relationships with the other board members. And you’ve also got to understand what are the key things that a board member needs to focus on, as opposed to what the executive directors are focusing on.
“As a non-executive director you need more than just being good at communicating because a lot of boards will say they can get people in to give them advice on that”Ian Harding
“Being a current executive director of a global company, I probably have some empathy with chief executives and chief financial officers and I feel I have been able to understand their engagement strategy with Whitehall and key influencers. The British Council has a huge footprint across the globe and so does IHG so they have something in common.”
But Carole Cable warns that when looking for a non-executive directorship, it is important to pay attention to the target company or organisation’s executive pipeline. “Given the push for diversity around the boardroom table, particularly diversity around gender, some women are leapfrogging the C-suite and going straight into the boardroom. It’s an interesting phenomenon as it is the first time we’ve seen it happen. I wonder what the unintended consequence will be because it will obviously impact the pipeline of future female executive talent. We do want more diverse boardrooms but we also need to have a more diverse pipeline of managers coming up through the business.”
Ian Harding spent 20 years at FTSE 100 retail group Kingfisher, initially in senior financial roles before becoming the group communication director. Kingfisher’s CEO, Sir Ian Cheshire, supported Harding taking on a NED position to broaden his experience and six years ago he became a non-executive director and audit committee chair at drinks retailer Majestic Wine plc. Now Majestic’s senior independent director and remuneration committee chair, he started his career as an accountant and audit manager at PwC before joining Kingfisher.
“I’ve spent one-third of my working life in numbers and two-thirds of it working with words,” he says. “The move from communications and investor relations to non-executive director is not a very well-trodden path. One of the reasons is that as a non-executive director you need more than just being good at communicating because a lot of boards will say they can get people in to give them advice on that; either their own in-house communicators or investment banks or external PR agency consultants.”
Rachel Kentleton, finance director of payments technology group PayPoint, is the only one of our interviewees alongside Sue Clark whose NED position is at a FTSE100 company, holding positions as non-executive director and audit committee chairman at housebuilder Persimmon. She started her career by training as an accountant and working for organisations including Unilever and NatWest Bank.
She had her first taste of investor relations at Diageo and progressed through the same role at SABMiller before becoming director for strategy, regulation and investor relations at easyJet and moving up to group director for strategy and implementation. Her current NED role follows an 18-month stint as non-executive director at NHS Property Services and she is firmly of the belief that the skill-sets of IR professionals equip them with an advantage as non-executive directors.
“The more experience you can offer of different facets of a business, the more attractive you become as a non-executive director”Rachel Kentleton
“After having worked in IR roles, you will have a good understanding of corporate governance and a deep understanding of corporate life, from annual meetings to remuneration committees. You should also be adept at group strategy and dealing with external stakeholders. These are all good skills to bring to non-executive roles. The more experience you can offer of different facets of a business, the more attractive you become as a non-executive director.”
for Building A Non-Executive Career
THIS MAY CHANGE WITH THE ONSET OF MILLENNIAL MINDSETS IN CORPORATE ROLES BUT HISTORICALLY VERY FEW IF ANY AMBITIOUS BUSINESS LEADERS STARTED THEIR CAREERS WITH DREAMS OR ASPIRATIONS OF BECOMING A NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR. IT IS TRUE TO SAY THAT THE ROLE HAS IN THE PAST BEEN VIEWED AS AN ADD-ON FOR CHIEF EXECUTIVES WHO CAN GAIN EXPERIENCE OF OTHER BOARDS TO HELP THEM WITH THEIR DAY JOBS.
“It’s about challenging constructively, listening, observing and drawing attention to areas where you think the board may have missed something and needs to correct its course”Charlotte Lambkin
The new world that is dawning of non-executive directors drawn from a diverse range of disciplines and wielding a broad array of skills is a world away from the cyclical depiction of such positions as “jobs for the boys” or even sinecures. Non-executive directorships appear to be an increasing route for communications and investor relations professionals, allowing the extension of careers and spreading knowledge and expertise that might otherwise be confined to their day jobs or allowed to wither in retirement.
Yet how should potential non-executive directors from the corporate affairs and investor relations professions prepare for one day taking on such a role? Ian Harding believes it is important to amass a wide range of executive experiences before seeking to make the switch. “If all you are is someone who is good at communicating, I think it will be difficult to get a non-executive director position,” he advises. “You need to build a broader career. In my case, I have been a chartered accountant so I was a good candidate as non-executive to be an audit committee chairman. If you have a range of skills, you are instantly ticking more than one box.”
Kate Bolsover agrees and argues that amassing a variety of skills is even more important in the current scramble by boards to make sure they tick the right corporate governance and diversity boxes. “It’s going to take a few years to get this through the system and operating as it should,” she says. “I think people have to get themselves ready for non-executive positions as there is no point in any board appointing people too early before they have gathered all the experience that they are going to need.
“For me, investment trusts are what I know about. What’s happened over the past five or six years is that investment trusts boards have needed to get a much better understanding of the marketplace they are operating in. So someone with investor relations or distribution experience is very well-placed to bring that to a board because they understand how fund managers make decisions and the distribution channels that are used. Certainly in investment trusts, both have become much more important and relevant over the last few years.”
Charlotte Lambkin advises aspirant NEDs to bide their time. “I had spent ten years in advisory roles at agencies before I went in-house as a communicator and I think that experience never quite leaves you,” she says. “If you are able to get a good blend of agency and in-house experience as a communications professional, I think that does help a lot in performing a non-executive role.
“It’s about challenging constructively, listening, observing and drawing attention to areas where you think the board may have missed something and needs to correct its course. You need that kind of balance.”
Similarly, Rebecca Shelley started her career in investor relations and corporate communications in agency and in-house, including four years in New York. Most recently she progressed through IR and communications roles at Prudential as well as a stint at PR agency Brunswick before becoming group corporate affairs director at Tesco. Only after all that experience did she start to look at taking on nonexecutive appointments.
Julia Simpson believes that diversity of experience never ceases to be important and advises aspirant non-executives to consider a wide range of organisations in which to branch out from the day job or begin their plural careers. “My NED is at a start-up,” she says, “and I think you learn a lot from being on the board of one. Most start-ups, of course, go bust, so it is a real education, serving on one and playing a key role in its success by ensuring that robust debate occurs at board level and the right decisions are taken.”
There are steps that aspiring NEDs can take to prepare themselves for the different requirements of these positions. Formal training is available, though some courses are aimed at people who have already secured non-executive roles. The Financial Times’ Non-Executive Director Programme, for example, is an intensive two-day course designed for new NEDs as well as existing non-executives who want to further develop their skills. Similarly, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ FTSE350 Non-Executive Director programme is designed for NEDs of “FTSE 350 and equivalent companies”. Programmes specifically designed for those planning for such roles without having actually obtained one, can be found, however. “So You Want To Be a NonExecutive Director,” a workshop for professionals thinking about becoming a NED, is held by the FT each year, examining the duties and liabilities involved, effective boardroom behaviour and how to go about securing such a role.
“You need to build a broader career. If you have a range of skills, you are instantly ticking more than one box”Ian Harding
“The most difficult step is getting your first one,” says Gay Collins. “Once you have done that, I think it is easier to add a second NED role, though I have decided that I only want one. I wasn’t looking for a NED role. I was approached for this one, but investment trusts are in an area that I have spent much of my working life in communications.
“What appealed to me about it was that it was a new role for me, albeit in a sector I knew a lot about and where I felt I would have lots to contribute. It allows you to add a layer of scrutiny and challenge the status quo. I had seen investment trusts work from the other side when I was a PR person and now I enjoy trying to demonstrate how we as a board adds value. It seemed a very natural next step.”
Sue Clark, meanwhile, is convinced that there has never been a better time for communications and investor relations professionals to add another string to their bow by carefully planning for NED roles. “I do think there is opportunity given the focus that boards now have on diversity,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities in FTSE100 and FTSE250 companies and there are also opportunities for communications and investor relations people to get experience on the boards of NGOs and charities. It is a very good training path.
“I don’t see why communications and IR should not become just as mainstream a route into NED positions as the traditional routes through law and accountancy”Sue Clark
“No two non-executive positions are the same and no two company boards are the same, just because of the sheer diversity of them. They’re all different and they’re looking for different things. This requirement from the Corporate Governance Code to focus more on these softer issues makes corporate affairs people ideal for the role. I don’t see why communications and IR should not become just as mainstream a route into NED positions as the traditional routes through law and accountancy. There’s no reason whatsoever why they should not.”
A Vision for Broader Boards and a Greater Role for Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations
DESPITE THE PROGRESS DOCUMENTED IN THIS REPORT, CORPORATE AFFAIRS AND INVESTOR RELATIONS PROFESSIONALS HAVE NO GOD-GIVEN RIGHT TO BE REPRESENTED IN BOARDROOMS. INSTEAD, THEY ARE TAKING UP PLACES THERE BECAUSE THEIR KEY ROLES AT THE HEART OF CORPORATE BRANDS AND REPUTATIONS POSITION THEM IDEALLY TO CONTRIBUTE TO AND INFLUENCE DECISION-MAKING OVER WHAT ARE, AFTER ALL, MANY ORGANISATIONS’ GREATEST ASSETS.
It is regrettable that it has taken some time for this to be recognised and progress is still slow, with the executives featuring in this report representing the bulk of communications and IR professionals who are now non-executives at major businesses.
As this report has made clear, a confluence of factors is driving this belated but increased presence. As well as the importance of reputations and brands and those who know how to manage them, they include the other talents that reside in our small but growing complement, several of whom have served on major company executive committees.
The requirement for more diversity on boards is clearly assisting the trend and it is probably no accident that the vast majority of nonexecutives with communications and investor relations experience are female. However, communicators and IR professionals are much more than seat-warmers or corporate governance-pleasing box-tickers in the decision-making boardrooms of our companies. They are there because their roles place them centrally in the lives of modern companies, their relationships with stakeholders, their media presence and image and their experience of dealing with the demands of employees and customers as well as journalists and stock market analysts. Non-executive positions are not sinecures. Our interviewees testify to the difficulty of obtaining their roles and are only too aware of the responsibility. For the communications and IR industries, the growing recognition of the contribution their senior professionals can make to other companies’ boards can only be a beneficial development.
Both industries have long had to vie with advertising and sales, as well as with the disciplines of accountancy and law for recognition within companies and the emergence of their practitioners in boardrooms is long overdue. However, this is not a certain or an inevitable career route, as several of our interviewees have confirmed. Despite the progress made, communications and investor relations departments are far from the first places chairmen look for non-executive talent.
Whether these promising beginnings develop into another major career route for communications and investor relations professionals is very much in the hands of those in the industry who hold or aspire to these positions. It is up to them to broaden their skill-sets, develop deep knowledge beyond their immediate briefs and hone boardroom wisdom if they want to take advantage of the opportunities presented. With thorough planning, non-executive roles can be added to the road map of options in communications and investor relations careers.
At Broome Yasar, we continue to raise the profile of corporate affairs and investor relations as a potential talent pool for the NEDs and business leaders of the future, but such appointments will rarely be made by accident. Those who want to be part of the brave new world of non-executive directors should start preparing themselves now.