This article marks the second feature in our multi-part series on the careers, reflections and recommendations of independent Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) internationally. As some countries emphasise when a director is independent but others don’t, our shorthand NED includes independent NEDs (iNEDs). Part One in this series covered a spread of countries and financial services industries where the individuals gained executive experience, and their NED roles cover insurance, health, reinsurance, pensions/retirement and securities brokerage. This second instalment is similarly diverse, including bancassurance, financial planning, wealth management, asset management, insurance (life and general / property & casualty), and mortgages.
NED roles often form part of a portfolio career, where a number of different of roles are done concurrently, rather than only one fulltime corporate job. Portfolios can include both paid and volunteer positions: a mix of NED roles, part-time consulting, side commercial ventures, professional volunteering, community work and more… Plurality of roles is becoming increasingly common as the nature of work evolves.
Building on Part One, the vignettes in this second article offer further examples of the portfolio nature of NED roles. May their experiences encourage you to reflect on your own career aspirations. Read more below for the career experiences and suggestions of three more NEDs internationally: Margaret Carey, Ashok Gupta and Estella Chiu.
Margaret Carey’s career included time in the United Kingdom and South Africa. She feels she explored “all the possible [financial] roles available”, trying to steer clear of moving upward in management roles to maintain a work-life balance. She has always been determined to put her children first, and now spends a meaningful amount of her time with her grandchildren.
In her role choices, Margaret welcomed any opportunity that she thought might be daunting! Lifelong learning by stretching herself… Her diverse roles covered:
This broad smorgasbord of experience gives Margaret a solid understanding of the inner workings of and risks faced by insurance companies. It’s no wonder therefore that when she retired from formal employment, she was headhunted for an independent NED role for an insurance group owned by a bank (Nedbank). She accepted that position to continue her learning journey and embrace the challenge and alternative perspective the role presented.
Margaret enjoys the opportunity to leverage everything she learned over her career to make a difference for the company. Her NED role requires that she keep up-to-date with “absolutely everything, so there’s never a boring day or dull moment”. She savours the contact with the executive and management teams, and enjoys prioritising issues and crafting how to communicate to inspire, influence and lead from behind.
In addition to her role as a board member, she sits on the Risk, Audit & Compliance Committees, and also chairs the Market Conduct Committees. She has steered implementation of new regulation which requires a comprehensive risk management system and robust governance, facilitated board signoff of policies requiring actuarial knowledge, and given input into independent reviews of processes and models. However, she says, emotional intelligence and relationship, communication and systems thinking skills together with understanding governance have probably been of more benefit as a NED i.e. the skills she developed after qualifying as an actuary.
Margaret describes an effective board as a puzzle: the members and chair all need to bring a different puzzle piece to the table, each distinct but complementary. The pieces need to fit together. When the environment changes, the puzzle needs a new piece e.g. analysis of big data, digital evolution, or managing cyber risk. The next member the board looks for will need to be that new piece.
She advises those considering NED roles in future to develop unique skills in order to have a lot to offer: “If I look ahead, I would be getting on top of technology, behavioural and data analysis!”
Financial Planning, Wealth Management, Insurance, Asset Management
An experienced NED, Ashok Gupta also had an extensive executive career, concentrated in the United Kingdom. He obtained his MBA at City University Business School, and was Principal at Tillinghast, FD & Actuary at Scottish Amicable (now part of Prudential), Group Strategy Director at CGU (now Aviva), CEO of Kinnect (a technology platform for Lloyds of London) and Operating Partner at Pearl (renamed to Phoenix). After that, Ashok decided to “go plural”, and build a portfolio of NED roles. The variety of his work experience has helped him stay relevant as a NED and be attractive to boards.
His first NED role was with St James Place in the mid-90s where he represented Scottish Amicable (a part owner in the joint venture). His next NED role was for Skandia from 2004, including forming their Risk Committee, while he was working with Pearl. Both companies were in very different markets at the time, and Ashok notes that “it is becoming increasingly common for senior execs to have a NED role too as it gives you insight into the expectations boards have”. It also meant that when he decided he wanted a portfolio career, he already had one NED role, so was “better positioned when looking for others”. His other NED roles have included: EValue, AA Insurance Services, New Ireland Assurance, JP Morgan European Smaller Companies Trust and Sun Life Financial (headquartered in Canada).
In addition to corporate roles, he’s been involved with regulatory bodies like the The Pensions Regulator, the Bank of England, and the Financial Reporting Council. He posits that building engagement with regulators is important at a senior level, and it makes it far easier to guide a business when there are important regulatory issues to consider.
Describing what appeals to him about NED roles, Ashok explains that his passion is building great businesses, and being a NED is a way of helping other people do that: “it helps continue my passion without doing the heavy lifting”. He tried to retire after listing Pearl, but after six months was eager to get back into things. The roles give him a way to stay commercially involved, maintain his relationships and keep learning.
His NED roles require him to be a good listener, and work with the other NEDs and management as a team to add value to what management is doing. This includes sharing different perspectives of looking at a problem, and offering constructive challenge that helps drive better solutions. Oversight is important, he says, but people don’t ask you to join a board because of your oversight capabilities.
An experienced board chair too, Ashok describes that role as being about helping to set the strategy for the business and ensure that its delivery is based on alignment of ambition between management and shareholders. It is far more active in that you are “leading your leaders”, rather than using the specialist skill that a Risk Committee, for example, requires.
His NED appointments have tended to come through headhunters, so Ashok’s approach has been to maintain his network, profile and skillset as it’s difficult to attribute a specific approach to a specific source in your network. Keeping top of mind among your peers is helpful, he says.
Companies want people who have relevant business experience, including insurance experience where needed i.e. understanding how businesses work. While you can have specialist skills (such as legal, investment banking, auditing), you must have general business skills.
One tension that Ashok mentions is when you find yourself as a NED in a situation where there are intractable issues which you are struggling to find a way through. This requires a lot of thought about whether to stay and try to improve the situation, or stand down from the board. Examples include governance flaws or inherent issues with financing for the business or shareholder structure, which can impede the board’s collective ability to contribute to business growth.
Ashok’s tips for us:
Life Insurance, Mortgages and General Insurance / Property & Casualty
Estella Chiu’s NED roles are for companies in Singapore and Hong Kong: Singapore Life, and Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation (HKMC) and its annuity and insurance subsidiaries. She describes herself as retired, and her executive career included decades at HSBC Insurance (including time as its Regional Chief Actuary, and a position on the board of HSBC Life), followed by an executive role heading actuarial services for KPMG Asia-Pacific. Estella also gained her Executive MBA from Kellogg and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
As a previous president of the Actuarial Society of Hong Kong, Estella has an extensive network. Her first NED role was as a result of a referral from an ex-colleague. The company her colleague had been working for was an investor in a new life insurer and it could nominate a NED. Her next appointment arose because a previous client while Estella was at KPMG was setting up a new insurance subsidiary (HKMC Annuity). She enjoys her NED roles as they allow her to stay active in the industry but still have plenty of free time to pursue other interests like travelling.
Typically, her NED roles require her to attend four board meetings a year each, but sometimes there are additional board meetings on emerging issues requiring the board’s approval. She attends additional Audit Committee meetings too, in her role as their chair.
As her roles so far are in insurance companies, her professional training has been useful in understanding their financial dynamics. But, she notes, NED roles require strategic thinking which comes from experience gained over the years, rather than her formal qualifications. She particularly enjoyed when HKMC launched its first life annuity product, which is very uncommon in Hong Kong because of the longevity risk. As the company’s mission is to support government policies in providing retirement solutions to the general public, Estella felt inspired to be “serving a company contributing to social good by offering a meaningful, affordable retirement income product to retirees”.
Estella highly recommends that retired professionals serve as NEDs, whether for commercial entities or public organisations. She explains: “There is strong demand for independent NEDs and there is much that we can continue to contribute to society and stay active while leaving us free time to pursue our interests.”
All three NEDs in Part Two have described how these roles can help extend our careers, whether by sustaining our learning journey through embracing new challenges, pursuing a passion without doing heavy lifting, or continuing to contribute to society while staying active.
The ‘guiding rather than doing’ nature of non-executive roles is what makes combining multiple roles together with other interests possible i.e. they don’t each need fulltime attention. Colin Czapiewski, in his article “Actuary on board”, describes non-executive responsibilities like this: “longer-term planning, making strategic rather than tactical decisions, questioning rather than doing, being hands-off... It might be seen as being a grandparent rather than a parent, albeit with statutory responsibilities.”
The NEDs themselves highlighted the importance of strategic thinking, gained from experience over time rather than formal professional training. Emotional intelligence and skills in listening, collaboration, relationship management, communication and systems thinking were also emphasised as valuable in NED roles.