The Critical Role of Non-Executive Directors

One of the questions we hear all the time is, ‘Who is responsible for culture?’

In our experience culture is most valuable when the responsibility is shared across the organisation: it belongs to everyone. Ultimately, the accountability (both legally and morally) lies with the board. This is an important distinction to monitor the power of belonging.

Non-Executive Directors can make a real difference to the culture of an organisation. They have a unique role: their function is the objective view, the check-and-challenge. They belong to the organisation, but not to its daily routines, and are not too caught up n the intricacies to be constrained.

The role of the Non-Exec was much discussed at the Financial Reporting Council’s conference last year, “Culture to Capital.” We particularly loved the insight from Justin King, ex-CEO of Sainsbury’s (now Vice-Chairman and Head of Portfolio Business at Terra Firma) about his all-time favourite Non-Exec, Anna Ford.

“The best non-exec I have ever had was Anna Ford. She spent loads of time in the stores, she went to suppliers, she went to depots… as you would expect of an investigative journalist. She immersed herself in the business and absolutely was part of that sense of belonging.”

Anna Ford clearly took her skills as an investigative journalist into her new role with enthusiasm. But for many Non-Execs this is unfamiliar territory. Spreadsheets, reports, engagement scores, policy, governance terms – these are the regular fare. Culture, with its apparent intangibility, is well outside the comfort zone for most Non-Execs.

Companies need to support their boards and Non-Execs with leading belonging and culture. Sometimes it’s not even possible to begin the conversation: everybody has a different take on what culture is.

Leaders need to spend time on making culture more concrete, to agree a method, pin down the characteristics of culture. This will allow them to identify symptoms and the impact of performance. The reference points and a common language are important so that time spent in discussion is fruitful. Competence and confidence of Non-Execs enables peer review and reporting on progress.

Belonging Space has developed a one day foundation session for Non-Exec Directors to be familiar with culture, making them both competent and confident to lead board discussions on culture.