There are many definitions of a non-executive director plenty of which are less than flattering… Having worked as a non-exec myself and sat alongside many serial non-exec chairmen and directors I struggle to see why any of these descriptions are anything other than wrong.
The external perspective bought by a good non exec has proved invaluable in a number of the growing businesses I have worked with. For the CEO or even founder of a business it is often a lonely role at the helm. There may be a quality, executive management team supporting the CEO day to day but the ultimate key decisions can lie with one individual. Good non-execs are an invaluable sounding board. They listen; bring their experiences to the table and allow a CEO or founder to make an informed, balanced but still personal decision.
While PLCs have used non-execs for years to provide governance and meet regulatory requirements this underestimates the real value a non-exec can bring to any company regardless of its ownership. In private companies be they backed by venture capital; family owned or founder grown I have seen quality non-executive directors bring real value. Like any executive role the individual needs a clear scope of work and to build excellent working relationships with key stakeholders.
Building a successful SME in the UK today is hard enough with challenges around funding; regulation and the general state of the economy. Applying the skills of a non-executive director in most businesses can in my experience provide a real source of competitive advantage.