Denise Jagger on building a portfolio of non-executive directorships

Partner, Eversheds Sutherland; non-executive director, chair and trustee

2 October 2018 By Next-Up

Denise Jagger combines a portfolio of non-executive directorships with her role as client development partner for international law firm Eversheds Sutherland.

Her non-executive director positions include Pool Reinsurance, Bellway, SCS and Redrow Homes as well as voluntary roles with the British Olympic Association, York Museums Trust, Northern Ballet and the University of York.

Where did she start?

“I got my first NED role in my early 30s,” says Denise, “A former client was doing a float and wanted the combination of my retail and governance experience. I also took opportunities – as a major employer, Asda was often asked for someone to sit on boards in Leeds city and I took on a few roles that gave me good experience.”

She says she has worked extremely hard to build up her portfolio: “A lot of people think these paid non-exec roles have just come my way. They haven’t. I have networked, met headhunters, honed my CV and applied for positions. When I got the Olympics role, people kept asking me ‘how did you get it’, as if I was on some magic list. I kept replying – I applied for it!”

She adds that every application has been completely different: “You have to make it easy for search firms. You also have to think about the combination of sector, board and wider experience that is wanted. There are very few roles for a generalist.

“I spend a lot of time tailoring my application to the particular needs of an appointment – for example with the Olympics they were focused on legacy and I talked about the community work I had been involved with, as well as working across split sites and leading on people change programmes.

“In other cases it’s my governance experience that matters, or chairing Remcos or my retail background. Now and again I give talks on getting a non-exec role and I always say you need an agile CV!”

Where is she now?

These days, with considerable experience under her belt, Denise admits she is more selective and doesn’t apply for anything unless it plays exactly to her skills. Headhunters also know her by now, which means she does get direct approaches.

“In the early days I was sent on a number of interviews where I was an outside candidate. In a way the search firms are testing you and they want to check out if you interview well. Once they rate you, you eventually go to the top of their lists. This can take years.”

Denise says that working with the not-for-profit sector is often under-estimated: “I think there is a perception that the voluntary sector is somehow second rate. In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I am constantly impressed with the quality of people working in these organisations. They may not be on mega salaries but that has nothing to do with their ability – they are passionate about what they are doing and very good at it. I learn as much from them as I contribute.”

Her most recent role is chairing St Giles Trust, a charity helping disadvantaged people and tackling some of society’s most complex problems. They work in prisons and communities across the UK.

Denise adds, “The team at St Giles is quite amazing. I am inspired by their work and so proud of them. I would urge anyone looking for a paid non-exec to look at these voluntary roles. It is a great way to build a track record of experience but I think people will surprise themselves at what they get out of them. In many ways, you can feel you are making more of a contribution to not-for-profits than you can do as a paid non-exec. They are very different roles, but both have their rewards.”

When should I start looking?

Denise’s final tip is around timing: “A lot of people think they will wait till they retire to start getting non-executive director roles. They think they don’t have time while they are working. But the best time to get roles is when you are working and you have very wide and active networks. You need to tell people you are looking and be specific about the types of role you want – and don’t want.

“Getting a non-exec is not a quick process for most people, you need to allow time both for finding the right position and also for building up experience. Being a non-exec is very different from executive roles and headhunters are looking for evidence that you can do the ‘non’ part of ‘non-executive’!”