Sports Direct: The importance of a non-executive director fit

After news of this Sports Direct event hit, and having spent a career in headhunting and global HR, I explore whether businesses should look for a non-executive director who matches a company’s culture or whether a non-executive appointment is the perfect opportunity to go against the grain and challenge the rest of the board.

The purpose of every non-executive director is to add value in the board room, pointing out the route to better decision making.

While executive boards may intellectually accept that they are eager to have that independent voice identifying potential blind spots, the reality of having a different and critical dynamic in the board room is that it is more likely to be met with varying levels of resistance, leading to possible hostility and ultimately resignations. Perhaps exemplified by the Sports Direct debacle.

The non-executive director has a duty to interrogate and inevitably this means that on occasions they will be a thorn in the executive side. Harmony and consensus probably come at a cost – less robust decisions, less debate, less scrutiny and more opportunities for the most assertive directors to win the day.

A collegiate board that finds itself in constant agreement may wish to add in the spice of the other perspective of the independent non-executive. However painful it may be in the short-term, the shareholders will benefit.

Directors should make a concerted effort to learn from other members of the board and appreciate the various roles they play in terms of practical skills brought to the table, but also to value their various personas and how a blend of characters can be your organisation’s winning edge.

At face value it’s disappointing to see the only female board member at Sports Direct leave because we’d always encourage a diverse range of perspectives where the people have the right skills and experience match for the role.

For all of this to work and not end up in board room spats and resignations, the responsibility for managing the debate lies with the non-executive director who needs to have the skills to influence the behaviour of the executive team, understanding how to get the message across without relationships breaking down. A calm and measured non-executive who can manage different personalities round the table will always win the day.

Anne Watson is COO of In Touch Networks

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