Your military career has provided you with significant experience of operational, strategic, and people management matters – all of which are valued by civilian employers.
According to the 1991 Cadbury Report, non-executive directors “should bring an independent judgement to bear on issues of strategy, performance and resources including key appointments and standards of conduct”. But what do Non-Executive Directors and Trustees actually do?A non-executive director (NED) is a member of an organisation’s board of directors but is not part of the executive team. A NED does not typically engage in day-to-day management matters but, importantly, gets involved in shaping policy and planning, acts in the interests of share or stakeholders, and keeps a weather eye to the practices of the executive directors.
In some cases, NEDs are known as external directors, independent directors or outside directors, but whatever the sobriquet they are commonly put in place to challenge the direction and performance of an organisation and its management. Being one step removed from C-suite responsibilities affords NEDs an objectivity that often allows them to better understand and serve an entity’s interests than their executive counterparts.
The civilian world can appear a cynical place at times – it is not uncommon for NEDs to be appointed for public relations or corporate social responsibility reasons, in addition to their professional skill sets. However, one need look no further than the military charity sector to see that a former officer brings more than just ‘pips’ and prestige to a third sector role. Fundraising is the lifeblood of these organisations and perception is paramount – having someone with a distinguished career ‘in uniform’ with a hand on the tiller can have a huge impact – it is not merely symbolic.
Do not for a moment be fooled into thinking that non-executive is synonymous with ‘not responsible’. There is no legal distinction between executive and non-executive directors – NEDs have the same legal duties, responsibilities and potential liabilities as their executive colleagues. No lesser authority than the Institute of Directors states that “NEDs are subject to the codified duties of directors contained in the Companies Act 2006 in the same way as executive directors.”
Nicky served a full career in the Army and ran the Defence Medical Welfare Service for 7 years before moving into the world of non-execs and Trustees. She believes that roles like these are vital for institutions to survive, thrive and continue to make an essential contribution to society. She also asserts that a military career is an excellent grounding for work in this sphere.
“Top quality trustees and non-execs are needed. It’s a job that requires a curious mind and a commitment to ‘understand and work’ for the organisation, not just dip in and out for meetings. Military service develops and enhances skills and knowledge in areas such as operations, logistics and human resources, all of which are reflected in these institutions. Our ability to assimilate new information swiftly, appreciate regulation, apply good judgement, and analyse impact and consequences means we know how to contribute to achieving improvement.”
Murdoch insists that the governance function, for a trustee or non-exec, requires a significant level of interest and understanding of the role and purpose of the body being served so that one may provide excellent thought leadership and clear direction to the executive:
“This knowledge of the mission and vision will allow you to govern, assure and advocate without interfering in the delivery by the senior managers which, in turn, adds value to them and provides satisfying reward for you. The greatest challenge is the ability to really read and understand the balance sheet and financials – this skill can contribute greatly to success but the consequences of getting it wrong are significant.”
The responsibility and accountability referred to by Nicky Murdoch are crucial aspects of the role of the NED and are often discharged by helping shape and manage strategy, performance, and risk, from an objective standpoint unburdened by day-to-day operations. Another common requirement for NEDs and Trustees is that they embody the values of the organisation and add value by leveraging their network of like-minded contacts.
For former military officers, such a post also represents the opportunity to apply the many disciplines learned during their time in service, as James Ramsbotham who served in both the British and Canadian Armies, explains.
“Military personnel have so much valuable experience that has broader applications in other walks of life. Becoming a member of a Board of a business or a charity offers huge opportunities to apply that experience and meet an incredible range of people. I served for twelve years before working in banking, the construction sector and running a Chamber of Commerce for the next 30 years.
“During that time I have been a Trustee or Non-Executive Director of my local school, various charities, a government quango, three universities, my Regimental Association, a sports foundation, a special needs school, a building society, a start-up bank, a cathedral, a military museum, a social enterprise for the homeless, as well as helping many more.”
Ramsbotham’s enthusiasm for the work is evidenced not simply by the length of his list of appointments but the relish with which he describes his experiences: “Each role has broadened my horizons and taught me a huge amount – it has been fascinating and rewarding. I have been able to employ my experience from my time in the military, as well as other walks of life. I have met and worked with some incredible people, many of whom are now close friends. Several have introduced me to others from whom fresh opportunities have arisen. My life at present is massively enriched by these people who I see professionally and socially.”
As recommendations go, you would be hard pressed to find one more effusive than that given to us by Ramsbotham when asked if he would recommend NED or Trustee roles to those with an Armed Forces background: “I encourage everyone to open this door to a whole new world. I cannot promise where it will lead but I know that it will be a great journey. What is more, I particularly encourage serving personnel to start the journey early, if at all possible, as these connections may lead directly to your next career. They certainly have for me – three times!”
This article has presented a positive picture of the NED/Trustee experience – it is without doubt an increasingly popular choice among officers approaching resettlement – but it is by no means an easy option nor one to be taken lightly.
All non-executive directors are required to commit a significant amount of their time to the oversight of their organisation and are expected to disclose any other significant time commitments to the board.
Sandhurst graduate and former Royal Highland Fusilier, Robert Barton, recommends a considered approach: “Years of personal investment in my business and community relationships led to invitations to become a trustee and NED with local and national charities as well as a global defence consultancy.
Working in either of these roles needs serious consideration. It requires your personal time – sometimes a lot of it – and for your own self-motivation it needs to be within a sector in which you have a genuine interest. “Think about your own unique skill set and how you can complement the organisation you’re considering as it can be frustrating if you can’t usefully contribute to the mix.
An early introduction to your fellow trustees is a good idea as is the opportunity to shadow a meeting or two.”
The are many rewards that come with being a Trustee or NED – not all of them financial, as many of these roles are unpaid – and it’s clear that there is a great deal of knowledge and experience to be gained. There are also career development benefits to be reaped, as Robert Barton explains:
“All the positions I hold, and have held, have been voluntary – from local school governor to national charities, but the community and child-focused benefits are immeasurable. It’s surprising how much you learn when you are head-down interrogating budgets, forecasts or difficult staff issues. It’s a wonderful place to build and grow your own personal and social networks which can influence both your community and your developing career.”
Lee Holloway believes that those who have served as officers in the Armed Forces have what it takes to make an impact in NED or Trustee positions:
“We recognise that military leaders have the skills, breadth of experience and personal qualities to perform at board level. It is our ambition to see businesses take advantage of this hidden talent pool and recruit more former military personnel to their boards.”
This article originally appeared in Pathfinder, the monthly magazine for Service leavers. The OA provides regular features, articles and insights for Pathfinder.