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8 May 2010

The Odd – Job Man

Tag(s): Boards, People

Sir Christopher Hinton was chairman of the newly created Central Electricity Generating Board from 1957-65. He moved the industry from relying solely on coal to a combination of coal, oil and nuclear power. On his retirement in 1965 Baron Hinton of Bankside became an “odd-job man” advising the World Bank on energy matters and serving as President of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

I too became an odd-job man when I started to plan what Charles Handy calls being a portfolio worker and Allan Leighton calls going plural and I first took on a Non Executive role over 7 years ago. I was then the fulltime Chief Executive of  a fully listed public company and my Chairman thought it advisable, nay, necessary for me to have the opportunity to serve on another board and, in his words, look at how someone else runs a company and in the process look back at yourself.

It was invaluable advice which I pass on freely. But anyone wishing to follow it needs to understand their responsibilities as a Non Executive Director. The law does not distinguish between Executive and Non Executive Directors. The Companies Act of 1985 was silent on the subject and the new Act of 2006, which in the interests of deregulation is twice as long and has been introduced in instalments, makes no mention either. A Non Executive Director is assumed to be as liable as an Executive Director and under the new Act has a new responsibility, that is to strive for the success of the Company. This is no longer defined as being primarily in the interests of the owners, the shareholders, but rather the members, who may include employees, suppliers and customers and other stakeholders e.g. communities, as well as  shareholders. This will lead to some interesting tests in the High Court e.g. will  a pig farmer sue a major supermarket chain because he goes out of business under duress to supply his pork below cost? We shall see.

It is possible that those who aspire to be Non Executive Directors may have faced similar responsibilities in other capacities. They might have been appointed as a trustee of a Pension Scheme – a pretty heavy responsibility. Or they might have served as Governors of a school- again a significant responsibility. There are over 90,000 Governors of schools in England & Wales- it’s the largest volunteer force in the country- and yet I wonder how many of them understand their legal responsibilities.

So a key lesson is to learn those lessons. Anyone who wants to take on such responsibility needs training. That applies to both Executive and Non Executive Directors. There are several good courses. I have attended three plus top up seminars on specific issues, changes to the law etc.

I now have a number of engagements which keep me out of mischief.

I had, and have, a plan. Imagine a piece of A4, divided in sections, each one naming the type of institution, the position required, the days available and the fees sought. It adds up to an annual number of days and fees. Both are less than the full time roles in the past but allow me time to pursue the other interests of the cliché. It is colour coded to show what stage in development the plan has reached.

This did not just happen willy nilly. I set out to achieve a balance of work between different kinds of organisations. Part of the attraction and indeed fun of going plural is that I can enjoy different sectors, different types of work. I wanted to be Chairman of a listed company; I wanted to work in the public and voluntary sectors as well as the private sector; I wanted something in education; I wanted to stay in touch with the City at the wider level; and I wanted to have the opportunity to pass on the benefit of my experience to others. I have been able to achieve all of these.

But how did I execute my plan? Well, I cannot over emphasize the importance of contacts, the little black book. It is vital to work to widen one’s network. Your network is part of your value added. For many the idea of networking is pejorative They imagine events with roomfuls of strangers thrusting business cards into each other’s chests and somehow imagining that offers of work will flow like honey from this process.

That might work for some- but it does not work for most. What does work is maintaining an ever wider circle of friends and associates. This will no doubt start with one’s immediate colleagues and peers in one’s profession. But over time it is important to enrich this with a variety of other industries, other professions.  Look for diversity. I deliberately attend functions, for example, where it is not my specialist subject on which I am an expert and know what I am going to say. I do go to those events as well but more out of a desire to pass on my experience. But I like to go to events where I am the learner and look forward to meeting new friends and contacts. The key to effective networking is to develop relationships first, business second.

(For more about networking please refer to my blog on “Networking and the six degrees of separation” posted on 29 August 2009.)

So is a portfolio career for you?  Consider the following statements.

  • I am an excellent time manager

  • I’m not afraid to take risks

  • I manage stress well

  • I enjoy change

  • I like being my own boss

  • People would describe me as assertive

  • I’m good at multi-tasking

  • Financial security is less important than doing fulfilling work

  • I’m self directed

  • I believe that what happens to me is largely up to me

If you strongly agree with most of these statements, then there is a good chance that you too could be an odd-job man. And if that is the case then in summary my lessons are these:

  • Know who you are and what you want to be
  • Position yourself clearly in terms of your target market and your route to market
  • Take the training to understand the responsibilities of being a director of a company
  • Build your network to build your portfolio
  • Set out to enjoy it.

Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved

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