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Criticaleye Board Mentor and serial non-executive Tea Colaianni on making the transition from HRD to NED

The road from Human Resources Director to Non-Executive Director is not for everyone, but get it right and there are significant rewards, both personally and professionally.

The road from Human Resources Director to Non-Executive Director is not for everyone, but get it right and there are significant rewards, both personally and professionally.

My own executive career concluded with a six year tenure as Group HR Director for FTSE 100 Merlin Entertainments, which included being part of the team that led the business through its IPO. With aspirations for a plural career and many years of HR and leadership experience to draw from, I resigned from Merlin at the end of 2015 and left in early 2016 in the midst of planning and paving the way for a new non-executive career.

The first stage of any career transition process is invariably about asking questions. How do I start the process of embarking on a plural career? What sorts of roles am I looking for? What are my key strengths and interests which I can bring to a board? And what sorts of organisations and brands do I want to work with? It is also about talking to as many people as possible and exploring multiple avenues.

At the time, I had been a member of Criticaleye, a community of senior executives and industry leaders, for a number of years and utilised a Board Mentor as part of my membership. During the period when Merlin completed the IPO we worked closely together on preparing for life as a FTSE100 company and built a very trusting relationship. My mentor became an invaluable sounding board and after the IPO we started considering the process of me becoming a non-executive. Over the years, various conversations with peers within Criticaleye and my mentor played a key role in shaping my thinking around what I wanted my career to look like and where I would be best suited.

Mentoring has always played a big part in my life, both as a mentor and a mentee. Access to a mentor offers a unique opportunity to get input from a completely independent individual, who has no vested or conflicting interests in the advice and support they offer. I have, throughout my career, been a huge advocate of executive mentors to support the development of the senior team, as well as throughout the lower levels of the organisation. I am also a mentor for the Aspire Foundation – a charity which supports aspiring women – and now a Board Mentor for Criticaleye with the aim of passing on my experience and helping today’s leaders in their roles.

Mentoring played a significant role when I transitioned into my NED career. I distinctly remember my Criticaleye mentor asking me the one question I hadn’t considered – how would I deal with failure? After a successful and varied executive career and with so much experience to offer, this thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. It was, of course, a highly relevant question for anyone considering such a significant change. It made me realise I had to approach my NED career with a slightly different mindset – not every board would be right for me, and I wouldn’t be right for every board. I had to think about what I wanted, as well as what I could offer an organisation, and what balance I wanted to achieve between work and family life. My mentoring sessions allowed me to step back, think about what I really wanted and make the right choices.

I currently have three NED roles including Mothercare, SD Worx and I sit on the board of the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. I am also leading the Women in Hospitality and Leisure Review in association with Korn Ferry. Helping women progress to the highest levels of organisations across what is a very familiar sector is something I am really passionate about. Each role was carefully chosen and based on both personal and professional interests in the organisations, their individual journey, challenges they offered and the value I could add. Based on my own experience, I would recommend any HRD who is thinking of taking the plunge into a NED career to make a number of careful considerations including:

Establish what you are interested in early on in the process and look for roles which play to this, as well as your strengths and experience.

Don’t feel restricted by sector – as an HR professional your experience and skills set can transverse a number of sectors and industries. Your leadership experience will invariably be valued over and above any specific operational expertise

Think about your interest in the broader business and people

It may sound obvious, but look closely at the way NEDs input into a business and question whether you will enjoy this type of role – this is critically important before making the transition

Speak to as many people as possible and, if you don’t have one already, consider the benefits of a mentor

Spend time understanding the businesses you are interested in and develop your views – as a NED you have the opportunity to ask lots of questions, draw parallels with any previous relevant experience, share your reflections and discuss issues in a completely non-emotional and objective way, but you do not have executive responsibility so you need to know when to step back and let the team do their job

Be yourself – not every NED role will be right for you, think about what you want to get out of opportunities on a personal level as well as what you can offer

About Criticaleye:
Established in 2003, Criticaleye is the peer to peer Board Community for CEOs, C-suite executives and global leadership teams. Comprising primarily of CEOs, Chairpersons, Non-executive Directors, Managing Directors and Divisional Managing Directors, Criticaleye inspires leaders to succeed by providing a personalised and highly bespoke development framework for executives and their teams. We enhance leadership performance by reinforcing the role of the CEO, promoting the importance of accountability and enabling executives to collaborate, break down silos and build trust.

Criticaleye is global Community, supporting leaders by helping them overcome challenges and reach structured outcomes. Our Members represents a large number of global companies, alongside some of the business world’s most influential thought leaders. We advocate collaboration, challenge, respect, trust and integrity across our Community, in terms of our own interactions with Members as well as their participation in Criticaleye and with their own executive teams.

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