One of the most enjoyable parts of my job at the Appointments Commission is attending the induction courses we hold for new non-executive directors. I am always impressed by the quality and experience of the people I meet and by their enthusiasm and commitment.
The courses are attended by non-executives who have been in their role for up to six months and it is striking that one issue is often raised, particularly by NEDs who have been in post the longest: the widening gap between the time they expected to have to commit to trust business and the time they are actually spending on it.
In fact, one despairing non-executive told me recently that he had found the time required was considerably more than the expected 2.5 days and he was struggling to meet the commitment. He was even thinking of resigning if the situation did not improve.
Non-executive director roles are remunerated on the basis of 2.5 days' work a month. On the whole, it has always been the commission's view that this is achievable, providing the role is properly focused, as it should be, on governance and strategic direction. We do recognise that at the beginning of your term of office, you may need more time for induction and getting to know your organisation, but this should help to save time in the long run.
It is worth remembering that, although some aspects of the roles are different, 2.5 days a month is at the high end of the commitment expected from non-executives of even the largest private sector organisations.
Share your views
Clearly, though, it is not in the interests of the NHS to lose talented people and this is an issue I would like to address. As a first step, I would like to know your views. Do you regularly spend more than 2.5 days a month on NED business? Do you think it is actually possible to perform the role successfully in only 2.5 days a month? And if not, what are you being asked to do that makes it impossible for you to keep within this time commitment?
It might also be worth taking a look at the way your board operates to see if there are any changes you can make to alleviate time pressures. For example:
If you are regularly faced with a set of board papers heavy enough to make a handy doorstop, why not ask the executives writing the papers to include a two-page executive summary?
If board meetings are too long, would reorganising the agenda help? Ensure that "items to note" are at the end of the agenda and that they are just for noting, not discussing. Is it always necessary for executives to present papers they have written?
Does the board make time for social interaction? It can help to facilitate an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect around the board table, which may lead to faster decision making.
What additional support does the board offer to relieve the burdens on non-executive directors?
Are you being absolutely rigorous about your own role? Are you getting involved in the detail of management when your role is to step back, set strategy and scrutinise performance?
Be clear about what you can and cannot do. Have the courage to say no to unrealistic requests, particularly if you are being asked to sit on numerous committees or take a lead role in time-consuming pieces of work.
Perhaps you have examples of initiatives and good practice you would like to share. If so, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put the best ideas on our website.
We'd like to know your views on the time commitment issue. To take part in our survey, go to www.appointments.org.uk