Startup Life/Opinion/

How I got my role as a non-executive director in tech

More startups are hiring independent and non-executive board members. It’s a compelling opportunity for operators

Sarah Drinkwater has been an Atomico scout
Sarah Drinkwater

By Sarah Drinkwater

Startups are navigating complicated times: if it’s not the “is it all over or not” of the pandemic, it’s the Great Resignation or the uneven distribution of bumper amounts of capital. Which means the guidance and support of boards are more important than ever — especially independent board members or non-executive directors (NEDs), given they typically have relevant operational expertise.  

Many startups are waking up to the value these advisers can bring. They are bringing on NEDs earlier than ever, and the average board chair is getting younger. But there’s still work to do in building truly diverse boards: 34% of startup boards have no women and only 3% have female chairs

Many startups are waking up to the value these advisers can bring

This presents an opportunity for ambitious operators who have helped build companies and now are moving into another stage of their career — one that involves helping the next wave of companies grow. You don’t necessarily need to quit your day job to be on a board, although some people start pursuing these kinds of opportunities seriously when they’re on sabbatical or between positions as a way to develop further. 

But how do they go about joining a board? Having recently joined the board of Mind Foundry as their first NED, I wanted to share more about the process and how you too can start the journey. 

Consider your skill set, the time involved and how to get introduced

First, consider your strengths. “Think about where you’ve traditionally been a great thought partner to founders and colleagues,” suggests Hazel Mulhare, partner at board headhunter Erevena. “What problems do you like to think through and solve? My first question to a would-be NED is what gives you energy, because taking on a board role should be additive.” 

With Mind Foundry, I loved the team’s focus on responsible AI and that, rather than “ethics washing”, it really is core to how they decide which partners to work with and how. Having just moved back to Europe from Silicon Valley, it was also appealing to work with a homegrown company spun out of Oxford University. 

Hazel’s point is important given the time commitment boards require. Boards vary but most will expect at least one or two days a month of your time, split between regular board meetings and help needed in between, such as in crucial times like fundraising. 

“What problems do you like to think through and solve? My first question to a would-be NED is what gives you energy”

Headhunters like Erevena, Gordon & Eden or Egon Zehnder can help potential NEDs assess their skillset and make introductions, but many companies hire directly, so consider your existing network. Even humble tweets can help. Hazel followed me on Twitter before I was recommended for the Mind Foundry position. 

And don’t think you need existing governance board experience to be considered. “Advisory roles, whether informally helping a startup or joining a non-profit board, are a great way to start and prepare,” adds Deborah Okenla, founder and chief executive of YSYS and board member at, among others, Coders of Colour and the UK government’s No 10 Innovation Fellowship, although Hazel adds: “If the candidate wasn’t a founder and hasn’t been a NED before, we’d look for them to have had significant exposure to boards while they were an executive.” 

So you’ve found your dream NED role. Now what?

In the interview process, what you’re really looking to do is truly understand the company and the core people involved, from senior staff to fellow board members.

“To enjoy your time with the board, and to have influence,” says Tracy Dorée, who is chair at Farewill and independent board member at what3words. “Building an easy, open dialogue and a strong base of trust is important.”

You’re seeking evidence that your visions are aligned and that you can build strong working relationships with the chief executive, fellow board members and the leadership team; after all, you’ll hopefully be working together for a few years.

In the interview process, what you’re looking to do is truly understand the company and the core people

“Mind Foundry wanted and needed someone who could constructively challenge us from their ‘outsider’ perspective,” adds Brian Mullins, Mind Foundry’s chef executive, “but who also fully understood our mission, values, and the reasoning behind them. You only get so much of a NED’s time — you can’t be in a position where you’re spending large chunks of it bringing them up to speed.” 

“When interviewing,” adds Hazel, “ask what the company wants to achieve from this appointment. Practical questions like board health are also important; are people being direct in meetings, is there any strife or mismanagement the founder needs help with?” 

Once you’ve considered you can work together the company should make you an offer. Generally speaking, NEDs receive both equity and an annual salary, and there are lots of resources to help you benchmark compensation. 

Both sides happy? Time to get to work. 

Sarah Drinkwater is a former Google executive and angel investor.

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