The role of the Non-Executive Director: Gary Browning in conversation with Ashton Ward

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To celebrate the news that our non-executive director (NED) Gary Browning has been nominated for the 2021 Non-Executive Director Awards, we bring you this conversation between our Managing Partner, Ashton Ward, and Gary, where they explore what it takes to be a NED and how smaller businesses can benefit.

Gary has been the non-exec chair of Eton Bridge Partners since January 2018. With more than twenty years of experience within business consulting and professional services, Gary brings a wealth of industry knowledge.

During the last three years, Gary has led our board discussions, challenging and supporting our executive team with his distinct human touch. He is extremely well liked and respected, and has been a fantastic support and sounding board to me as the Managing Partner.

Gary has built trusted internal relationships with our senior leadership team, through his wise counsel, sound judgement, and his effective ability to chair conversations.  He brings an insightful perspective, often shining a light on the right way forward.”


AW: Gary, tell us how you came to be a Non-Executive Director?

GB: In 2016, after running the Penna HR consultancy for twelve years, I managed its sale to the international group Adecco. The price we achieved – £105 million – represented a multiple of 16 times profit, a real premium on its valuation. Putting this deal together was a fantastic experience where I learned as much in 12 months as I had in my whole career to date. I thought: perhaps there are other companies out there that are planning to buy, sell or transition where my experience would be useful?

It was clear I had a story to tell. I had a narrative that set out what I could contribute to companies, especially those in the HR sector. I put the word out through my network of friends and colleagues and that of course is how you and I met.


AW: As I recall, we weren’t too sure what we wanted from a NED and you suggested a strategy day…?

GB: It’s a low-risk way to find out if we can work together. A day talking strategy with the senior team allows us all to see if we like each other’s style, and for me to understand what makes the business tick.


AW: How does an incoming NED build trust with the rest of the board?

GB: Building trust comes down to getting to know people. Whatever your role in the organisation, the key is to listen and ask questions. Show respect and empathy. And be transparent with your authentic self. No game playing.

Trust is more important than ever today. Companies built on trust go faster. But once trust is lost, it’s hard to get it back. As Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, put it, “trust arrives on foot and leaves in a Ferrari”.


AW: I know how we benefit from your contribution but in general, how does a business benefit from a NED?

GB: The bottom line must be that we add value. We deliver something that otherwise would not be there. I’ve stepped away from companies where I felt I could not add value.

Non-executive directors tend to be older. We’ve been around the block a few times and can bring that experience to the party. We also provide an external perspective. A senior team can fall into groupthink over time. A good NED can challenge those ideas. Diversity of thought is important in the boardroom.

We are also a useful sounding board for senior leaders, someone you can bounce ideas around with who is not caught up in the day to day running of the business.


AW: What sort of contribution have NEDS been able to make during the pandemic? Have businesses been more reliant on them?

GB: Absolutely, it’s been a hugely challenging year and boards have turned to their non-executive directors for guidance in making huge operational changes at speed. In my case, for example, that has been around the HR issues of remote working and how to maintain employee wellbeing. Now, as we begin to grapple with what comes next, business leaders are engaging their NEDs in conversations about the future.


AW: As we move forward from the pandemic, what you do think will change?

GB: I am fascinated by what comes next. One of the things I’ve done recently is to look at previous pandemics to see what we can learn. In 2000 years, the world has seen eight pandemics and they all had one thing in common: they dramatically accelerated existing trends. This one is no exception. Look at the huge shift to online shopping. It’s been rising steadily for 20 years but now my 90-year-old mother is confidently doing her grocery shop online. Diversity and inclusivity is another area where we’ve probably advanced five years in 12 months.


AW: Is there a difference between being a NED in a small organisation like Eton Bridge Partners and larger companies?

GB: Currently, I have seven NEDs, five of which are active. Two are PE-owned, two privately owned and one is listed.

Private companies all want something different and I find that evolves over time. Demands on NEDs in a public company tend to relate to governance and regulatory compliance, rather than business strategy.

My position is unusual in that I choose to specialise in the HR services (recruitment, coaching, training, technology) sector. Of course, I take care to have no conflict of interests, but the upside is I can find opportunities to make connections between them that can create value.


AW: What advice do you have for anyone thinking about becoming a non-executive director?

GB: Ask yourself ‘what value can I add?’. Spend time crafting your narrative, defining the experience and knowledge you have to offer. The clearer your story the easier it will be to explain to boards how you can add value to their company.

And choose your businesses carefully. Make sure you like the people you will be working with.

Finally, there is plenty of support out there, for experienced and novice NEDs alike. The Non-Executive Directors Association is a good place to start.

The 2021 Non-Executive Director Awards will be streamed live on Thursday 25 March 2021 at 17.00 (GMT).