The CEO has ultimate responsibility for executing all aspects of a business’ strategy, including long-term work to future proof the workforce. But I suspect with so many different responsibilities including maximising shareholder value in the short-term, understanding how the CEO is planning the workforce of the future slides down their agenda. This is where the non-executive directors should hold the executive to account and challenge where they see a risk to the long-term strength of the workforce.
To truly be effective in that workforce role, non-executive directors (NEDs) need to have a thorough understanding of the business and how it needs to adapt to changing demands in the marketplace. They should be looking at all the ways a business can make its workforce agile, moving away from traditional working models towards more innovative approaches to locating and scheduling when and where staff work.
To do that, businesses have to appoint independent people that can handle a more high-pressure role that includes making future strategic plans. Traditionally NED roles have been seen as a prelude to retirement for CEOs who would like to cut down their hours. I think the time has come for the role of a non-executive director to be recognised as a profession in its own right for the next generation.
It’s going to take some enlightened chairmen and chairwomen to drive that change. The more diversity of experience and thought we get at the executive level, the broader the talent base to draw from for non-executive roles down the road. It could be a position for people looking for a more flexible approach. Certainly the generation coming through are likely to have experience across a broader number of organisations and workplaces which they could bring to the table.
I’d suggest that identifying potential future NEDs could be part of the leadership development programme of an organisation. It represents part of what an organisation can give back to the business community. Something more organisations could address as they define and articulate their purpose. People need to know that they are capable of undertaking a non-executive role thanks to their experience and creativity. Currently this is rarely talked about.
Companies could widen the appeal of non-executive director positions by creating the appropriate incentive structure. The non-executive needs to feel valued for their service to the organisation, in the same way as any other employee. There needs to be a fair and transparent reward that is commensurate with the responsibilities of the role and that drives the right behaviour in this non exec cadre.
The UK governance code includes terms of reference to non-exec duties, but I think boards also needs to more clearly articulate what commitment is required of them and the responsibilities that they are likely to undertake.
Occasionally I meet individuals whose ambition is to become a non-executive rather than a CEO. I hope they are the forerunners of a sea change that will result in non-execs playing a greater role and bringing a broader range of experiences to a wider set of companies.