From Executive to Board Member

June 3, 2021 4:38 pm

Board membership is an excellent opportunity to complement executive performance and a great resource for professionals no longer serving in managerial roles. However, being a board member is different from being an executive, so it is important to gain an understanding of governance, recognise the differences, and make an effort to learn and adapt.

At the webinar “From Executive to Board Member: Experiences and Best Practices”, we had the chance to hear from Rosa Sanz (SEP ‘07 / Programme for Directors ‘20), who sits on the boards of Iberpapel, Capital Energy and Zero Waste Bioenergy (Suma Capital Group), and Ramón Adell, Professor of Business Economics and independent board member at Naturgy and Oryzon Genomics, as well as an expert headhunter: Antonio Núñez, senior partner at Parangon Partners.

As Rosa Sanz explained, the skills required to be an executive are not the same as those needed to be a board member because the functions are very different. While the board of directors views the company from a “big picture” perspective, the management committee is responsible for day-to-day operations, so there has to be empathy between the two. In Sanz’s view, good board members must be aligned with the company’s culture and ask themselves what they can contribute. At the same time, sitting on a board should not be a source of livelihood, so as not to compromise the board member’s independence. “The values that a board of directors transmits are essential for you, as a professional, to decide to get involved in it,” commented Sanz. “Nowadays, it is much more interesting to join a board, because everything is changing so quickly: technology, society, values, etc.” Regarding the importance of networking in this sphere, Sanz argued that these activities should be deep, transversal and sincere: “You have to network by giving, because it is personally satisfying and also because it allows you to be recognised and remembered.”

According to Ramón Adell, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of soft skills to create dynamics conducive to facing unfamiliar situations: “A board member’s greatest asset comes from taking care of his personal brand, but a brand can’t be improvised; education, experience, emotional competencies and ethical values are the pillars of a good board member.” Adell believes that board members should familiarise themselves with worlds outside of their speciality in order to understand the importance of learning from differences. “When you want to become a board member, you have to take the time to study the company, analyse whatever inputs you have, spend time on the board and understand what things you cannot allow.”

In the opinion of Antonio Núñez, the most sought-after characteristics of board members in today’s market are integrity, compliance, teamwork, the ability to build trust, a long-term vision grounded in prudence and an innovative character. “It is important to have a track record and recognition in the industry, to engage in professional networking and to be present in the board ecosystem,” commented Núñez. “However, in these times of transformation, boards need to have diverse profiles, because the demographic profile of the customers and workers has to be represented on the board.”

Alumni experiences on boards

David Cabero (Lic&MBA ‘97), General Manager for Europe at the Bic Group
According to David Cabero, the session was “very interesting” because it featured speakers “with different personal experiences, depth of thought and a well-rounded vision of strategy, business, the value of teams and leadership”. He added: “The role of an executive is different from that of a board member, and it takes time to shift your mindset to facilitating, advising and putting ideas on the table for executives to carry out. That’s why listening to other professionals’ viewpoints is very enriching.”
David has a long track record at the Bic Group, where the Bich family holds a majority of voting rights on the board. “We’re talking about the board of a publicly traded family business that dates back more than 70 years and has a very strong emotional bond. In this case, the board takes the long view, and as an executive you have to know how to connect with this vision and the culture of the company.”
David is also the Vice Chair of the French Chamber of Commerce in Barcelona and a board member at the European Writing Instrument Manufacturer’s Association (EWIMA) and Netmentora. “These boards are related to the development and creation of economic activity and jobs, so they have members from all sorts of economic sectors and maintain relations with institutions,” he explained. “Therefore, the experience is one of reflection, but with a very different focus, because we are accountable to our members.”

Rita Estévez (Programa de Consejeros MAD 17), CEO and Market President of Experian Spain and Portugal, Chairman of Experian Spain and Independent Director at Línea Directa
Rita Estévez believes that boards are the guarantor of business models and sustainability, and that they must therefore have a vision of the company in the medium and long term, as well as its role in society. The board does not have to manage day-to-day business, but it must establish the strategic guidelines within which the company must operate. Therefore, she argued, “board members also play a very important role in supervising and identifying the risks that could affect the company, and of course in ensuring that the interests of the company’s stakeholders and shareholders are upheld.”

Regarding the essential qualities of a good board member, Rita cited proven leadership experience and the ability to manage a company’s finances. “Board members must have a strong capacity for analysis and diagnosis, so that they can identify priorities and risks to the business model,” she commented. “They must also have robust knowledge of good governance rules as well as the matters that the board deals with: preparation and approval of strategy, supervision of accounts, integrity and regulatory policies, digitalisation, risks, etc. In addition, board members have to know how to reach a consensus, influence other people and work as a team, since the decision-making mechanisms of a board are very different from those of a management committee. They must also be deeply aware of the company’s role in society and the environment.”

Esther Minguell (Digital Business ‘16), Independent Internal Control and Corporate Governance Advisor
According to Esther, the right time for a professional to join a board is when he or she has sufficient experience and judgement to commit to the role and contribute value to the long-term sustainability of the company and associated third parties, and when he or she has sufficient quality time to act responsibly in accordance with the applicable legislation and good corporate governance practices.

“You can get a seat on a board through internal promotion, through contacts, through a specialised headhunter, by being linked to a person, association or business school that has a connection to the board, etc. But specific training in corporate governance is advisable and very useful, since you become more aware of what it means to be a member of a company’s board of directors,” explained Esther.

In Esther’s view, being a good board member is just like being a good professional, in the sense that it requires both soft skills and the appropriate hard knowledge for the role. “Additionally, you have to have an open mind, a proactive, visionary, generous and empathetic attitude,” she added. “You have to know how to guide, while at the same time supervising rigorously. And you have to stick to the role of board member, even if you have previously performed other managerial roles successfully. Your experience, knowledge and know-how should add value in terms of constructive and objective debate, sound decision-making and guidance, in-depth and focused analysis to assist the management team, and continuous improvement of corporate governance. Finally, a key element is working as a team, with transparency, ethics and honesty.”