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The palate cleanser: taking on a non-executive director role

The palate cleanser: taking on a non-executive director role
30 November, 2022

When you’re a leader of a tech scale-up, it might seem like madness to take on an extra role. You’re already wearing multiple hats, working crazy hours, and probably plane-hopping as you try to raise money and make your first sale. However, as I come to the end of four years as Chair of the Danish Diabetes Academy’s International Advisory Board, I cannot recommend taking on a non-executive director (NED) role highly enough.

Here I share a few reflections on the past four years.

Don’t do the ‘doing’

As an ops person, ‘doing the doing’ is my modus operandi. However, as a COO I’ve had to move away from the actual ‘doing’ and delegate more effectively to my team. Being a good NED means stepping even further away from the coal face and not getting involved in the day-to-day running of an organisation. I found this quite challenging in the first year of my NED role and had to learn how to add value whilst also standing back.

My first tactic was to listen, and secondly to create a safe space to have robust discussions. I learned how to help the leadership team look across the piste, to notice their blind spots and to keep their ambitions high. I still don’t always get this right, and sometimes jump in too quickly to provide a potential solution. But, being a NED has allowed me to recognise this pattern and flex my ‘pause button’ to greater effect. It also reaffirmed the importance of standing back and letting great teams get on and do their work, without executive or board members getting in the way.

A two-way street

At first glance, it might seem like there is nothing in common between my full-time role at Riverlane, a quantum computing scale-up, and the Danish Diabetes Academy, an organisation that fosters early career talent in Denmark. In fact, we’ve faced many of the same challenges in the past few years. How to recruit and retain excellent talent; how to raise funding in challenging circumstances; and, how to manage board expectations. We have more similarities than differences. And this is one of the joys of being a NED, you can share (and steal!) tips and tricks from one organisation with the other. You begin to spot patterns, see the same things you have seen before, and as such, your advice and expertise improves across both organisations.

This two-way street has also been hugely valuable for me as a leader. I’ve learned how to navigate two very different worlds, with different cultures and languages, broadening my perspective and sharpening my ability to switch context.

The best bit

For me, the most rewarding aspect of being a NED is developing personal relationships with outstanding leaders. Tore Christiansen and Tine Hylle – I salute you! It’s a joy and a privilege to be able to say: “Congratulations, you’ve done a great job, take a look at everything you’ve achieved”. Leadership teams usually work under considerable pressure, with competing demands from their boards and stakeholders, and don’t often have time to step back and notice what a good job they have done. While a NED is perhaps best understood as someone who offers constructive criticism and challenge, their role in offering praise and even a hug when things get tough, is under-appreciated.

Final message

Being a NED has sharpened my strategic thinking, provided a mirror for how my own organisation is running, and exposed me to new ways of thinking and being as a leader. After leaving the Danish Diabetes Academy in great shape with a new €26M five-year grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, I’ll be searching for a new NED role in 2023. It’s a prerequisite for me now to have this ‘palate cleanser’, helping me stand back from the craziness of tech start-up life and consider the bigger picture on my leadership journey.

For other senior leaders in the tech industry, I urge you to consider taking on a NED position. By being both an executive and non-executive director, you will be able to transfer learning from one organisation to another, as well as hone your strategic skills. For women and other groups who are under-represented on boards, I’ve found the following organisations, among others, a great place to start: Women on BoardsGetting on Board, and the Clear Company.  

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