Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Advice for Aspiring Non-Executives

The following article appears on the Financial Times Non-Executive Director website

December 2008
Betty Thayer is currently Deputy Chair of She is also a Non-Executive Director with the Appointments Commission, and on the Board of Trustees of three charities, Bath Mozartfest, British Friends of the Piccola Academia de Montisi and the Church Urban Fund. She is also a Member of the Advisory Board of the Bath University School of Management and a Visiting Lecturer at Cranfield School of Management.

Betty Thayer, who founded in 2001, is retiring from the company this month after seven years as CEO. The Non-Executive Director was developed out of, along with our sister site MBA-Direct, so it seems fitting to conduct this month’s interview with our outgoing founder.

Before starting, Betty had a very successful career in consultancy with Price Waterhouse and Andersen Consulting (as they were then) and Ernst & Young. It was while she had an interlude in the corporate world, as Corporate Strategy and IT Director for Lex Service plc, that she got her own first non-executive role. Lex was a contributor to a lobbying group in London called London First who approached Lex’s chairman to see if he would like to be on the board. He didn’t have time but he felt that this would be a good management development opportunity for Betty so he suggested to her that she should take it on. At the time, 1996, this was quite an advanced thing to do. However, Betty says that increasingly companies are beginning to realise the advantages they gain by encouraging the layer of management immediately below Board level to take on a non-executive role with another organisation to get board experience and to get out and network with like minded people.

London First had a subsidiary board, which eventually became Think London. Its purpose was to attract inward investment into London but, despite that, there were no non-English nationals sitting on the board, so her American background provided a very useful fit.

When she was at Ernst & Young, Betty travelled extensively as part of her job but the travel took its toll on her health, resulting in a near fatal blood clot, so she decided it was time to move on to something new. One of the people she spoke to at this point was a head-hunter specialising in recruiting for senior positions who realised that there was no suitable online resource for executive appointments. He invested in Betty’s skills and expertise and was born – straight into the burst of the bubble!

Betty had been interested in portfolio careers ever since reading Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason – New thinking for a New World and then meeting him and his wife over lunch. He thinks that most people, once they reach a certain age, need a variety of roles to keep them interested and that the thirst for knowledge, and the thirst for variety, is never ending. So from the very beginning exec-appointments had non-executive and trustee roles and Betty was clear that she wanted to cater to people looking for a portfolio career. And of course at that time there were a number of business failures and a lot of people, many of them relatively young, were finding themselves out of work for the first time and looking for a new approach to working life. So the portfolio idea really began to get up steam and doing something around that just seemed to make sense.

On looking around, the only other relevant site she could find was the Independent Director site run jointly by the Institute of Directors and Ernst & Young. Betty wanted to develop a site that had much more depth to it and was broader in content. Despite having very few resources, she was so convinced that there was a need for something like this that they developed a shell of a site and employed a student from Bath University on a placement for six months to populate it.

By the time the site was ready to launch, there was already a database of potential candidates built up from the exec-appointments site, various conferences and events. At the same time exec-appointments conducted a survey jointly with IDDAS about portfolio working which generated a lot of PR. It all fell into place and The Non-Executive Director was born. “There wasn’t a resource like it anywhere in the world,” comments Betty “and there still isn’t.”

A relatively new development has been the various networking events which are held each year, and Betty feels that these are one of the highlights of her role. “I enjoy speaking anyway, but I really enjoy meeting all the people with different backgrounds and interests who attend,” she says.

The other highlight has been the CV coaching work that she has done and which she hopes to continue. If you would like Betty to give you the benefit of her vast experience, she can be contacted through or on

Betty is also very excited about a new on-line product planned for 2009 which will be a really important initiative in non-executive director professional development, providing added value at a cost that’s affordable. The product is still at a relatively early stage of production but do watch out for further announcements.

So what are Betty’s own plans for the future? “Well, I’m going to take my own advice. I always tell people that it’s easy to say yes and difficult to say no and I’m finding that now myself. I have been presented with offers for several interesting sounding projects and I am having to be very careful not to load myself up with too many. I want to concentrate on a couple of areas and I also want to devote more time to my pro bono work.

I am on the board of several charities and I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to devote more time to them. I have plans to do more writing and speaking. I’ve already been asked to speak at several conferences in the UK and abroad, and I’m looking to get onto the lecture circuit in India. I would also like to continue my coaching and mentoring work with a select number of people who want to benefit from my unique experience.”

Not perhaps one’s usual vision of retirement then.

And from her unique experience, what are the Thayer Top Three Tips for potential non-executives?

Networking “This is undoubtedly number one. At our recent workshop for aspiring non- executives, I thought one of our speakers, Chris Curling, made a really good point when he was saying that he has lunches planned every day for months in advance but he makes sure that they have a purpose. He eats a lot of lunches but he makes them work. When someone wants to meet up with me, I think hard about why I’m meeting them. I do my research, I find out what they are doing and I work out whether there are any ways we could work together. Otherwise you could just end up eating a lot of lunches and getting nowhere.”

Having the financial bandwidth “This is so important and why I always stress to people about planning their finances well in advance. When you have been used to getting a salary cheque every month it can be quite a shock when it’s not coming in any more, and you have to give thought to what you need to do to adjust your lifestyle to accommodate the change in circumstances.”

Planning your time “Make sure you have enough time to give to all your appointments. Board meetings all tend to be in the third week of the month. I’m not on that many boards but I’m already finding clashes occurring. Planning your diary well in advance is crucial.”

“And finally, remember that you don’t have to be someone famous or a known name to find a useful role. In my most recent appointment, as non-executive director of the Appointments Commission, they’d never heard of me before I applied, but my professional background made me an extremely good fit. As long as you have strong credentials, and you look for roles which your experience and background are relevant for, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get an interesting and enjoyable role as a non-executive director.”