Daryn Edgar

21st Oct 21

Daryn Edgar portrait

Read­ing Daryn’s LinkedIn pro­file is exhaust­ing! For­tu­nate­ly, con­ver­sa­tion is much more relax­ing. Orig­i­nal­ly from Cana­da, she has been in the Unit­ed King­dom for some 15 years now.

However, much of what she offers today as a Chair and NED clearly has its roots in the years immediately after she graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Commerce in Accountancy.

“My early years were in the oil and gas industry. It was a good place to start. It was a very strong sector and western Canada, where I was, was the real hub of it. It was a great experience overall but it made me appreciate that I did not want to be an oil and gas accountant forever. I really enjoyed the business, the people and operating in a team but producing financial reports had its limits.

I sensed I was much more of a consultant by nature, especially when it came to implementing technology in different sorts of companies and in different countries. As I became more senior, I would start selling proposals directly to customers and found that stimulating. I began an MBA but only found the time to finish it by taking some time out. I then returned to work just as the dot-com boom was in full-throttle. I joined a start-up and found the high growth experience inspiring.

The company was, though, facing challenges and I took on making a spin-out from it. That led me to Wellpoint which was part of the Canadian venture capital scene and sought to grow their businesses internationally. That is how I came to the UK for what I expected to be a temporary two or three-year tenure. Following this, I settled into a series of roles which involved growing businesses for large corporates. I was an intrepreneur, which was very rewarding, and was comfortable taking apart the lego bricks of companies and working out what best to do with them. But I also had to ask myself what is next?”

Daryn’s first steps into what would become an extraordinary portfolio career started in 2011 when she enrolled for a Non-Executive Director training course organised by the British Venture Capital Association in 2011. In those days, such courses were relatively rare. They took place over three days and had a classroom feel to them. She was unusual in that she did not have a private equity or venture capital sponsor for the course (so was allowed a small discount) nor did she have an imminent NXD role that she felt that she had to prepare herself for. Although she had numerous board observer and advisory roles, it would be a number of years before a formal one came.

A lot of KYC involves very intense activity during the on-boarding stage of the relationship but not that much thereafter.

What NXD positions do you currently hold?

“Right now, I am focused on the Encompass Corporation. It is an exciting business that provides a fintech service for Know Your Customer compliance. It has a distinctive proposition that it refers to as perpetual KYC with a continuous focus on what may be a changing customer. A lot of KYC involves very intense activity during the on-boarding stage of the relationship but not that much thereafter. It is doing well and I think will do even better because there is a real need for that sort of service.”

What prompted you to explore non-executive roles in the first place?

“I am a consultant by instinct. I really like knowing a lot about a number of companies at the same time. I think that having broad experience of this sort is an asset. It means that I can offer my time and expertise and capacity to add value while really having skin in the game.”

How did you acquire your first NXD and what attracted you to it?

“My first NXD was a company called Traverse which was originally named OPM, the Office for Public Management which sounds like part of the public sector which it was not. It sold the services to run public consultation exercises primarily for local authorities and charities but also some businesses. It would also do follow-up surveys to discover how many of the original set of findings held true. It was employee owned and had a strong impact ethos rather than pure profit maximisation. Not long after I joined it secured its largest contract, the consultation exercise for the UK’s largest airport.

They actually found me rather than the other way round. They sought me out via the Women on Boards initiative. I came in as an NXD in 2017, a year later I was the Chair and my fixed term came to an end in April 2020 just as lockdown kicked in. When I arrived, the business was facing significant challenges, the CEO had done a fantastic job addressing these. They needed someone who would approach the board role with a commercial mindset, who understood the importance of the customer experience.”

In your non-executive roles, what has been the most useful part of your previous careers?

“I think it comes back again to being a consultant. A consultant has to understand how to package their advice into a message. If not, then it is less likely to land with the board and management. Boards ultimately have to (or should) make decisions. Consultants understand the importance of this. Many Board members, by contrast, are domain specialists who focus on particular areas that they know a lot about. Consultants have to be more generalist. That can be helpful in guiding the Board to an outcome.”

What makes a business attractive to you as a NXD/Chair?

“There has to be an imperative to make it interesting to me. I am suspicious when it seems that it is a business where there is nothing really wrong and nothing really right. Ticking over probably means that they don’t know they have a problem or have not sensed an opportunity. Traverse had been through a stagnation that had almost been fatal. They knew that they needed a growth strategy.”

What are the three biggest lessons that you have learnt from being a NXD/Chair?

“The first is that very early on you have to think about how you add value. To be an NXD used to be about sound governance. It has to be more than that today. I think this is especially important to me as I am also a CEO (of LYTT.com) and when I look around my Board (which has seen two substantial changes in little more than a year) I am asking myself about value as well.

The second is that it is your responsibility to look for the areas that are missing, for example in the Board pack. What is missing from this pack that would be in the interests of the company to know more about?

Finally, much of the value that you will bring will not be in Board meetings themselves but in all of the other meetings that you should hold to learn all about the business and the sector it operates.”

What is the best experience that you have had as a NXD/Chair?

“The best and most valuable experience I have had was at Traverse overseeing a CEO transition. It was not an easy business to attract a wide pool of candidates to. It was certainly not like hiring a tech company CEO. There were a couple of credible incumbent possibilities which was useful. I believe we found the right person. It was a very intense process and I was very relieved at the end. It would have been a big risk for the business if it had not turned out well.

It also accelerated my understanding of what it takes to be an effective Chair or non-exec. It left me with a process or toolkit. It helped me at Glisser when I did a year as a non-exec there and has been immensely useful at Encompass. I came into the role with a much better sense of how to add value.”

What is the biggest problem that you have faced and do you think that you solved it?

“The biggest challenge is not in identifying what you believe to be the business problems but finding the right time to share that assessment with the management team. Putting something on the table at Board level is a big deal. It cannot be done randomly without becoming destructive. Choosing your moment and carrying people with you is crucial. As I am now also a CEO I can see matters from all angles and appreciate that timing matters so much.”

What do you think the biggest challenge is for boards over the long-term?

“The evolution of the Board itself. It takes a long time to find good people, recruit them to the Board and for them to understand the business. The Chair, in particular, has to think a long way ahead.”

Finally, what advice would you offer to those starting out on a portfolio career?

“Start thinking about it and acting upon it five years ahead. Take time to think about exactly what it is that you are selling and why anyone else would want to buy it. Taking on a role alongside a more conventional career before moving over to the portfolio side entirely would be desirable. People who expect to switch instantly and effortlessly into a portfolio career may end up disappointed.”

As Daryn waited six years between that BVCA course in 2011 and her first full-on non-executive role she has clearly practised what she preaches. As someone who has had simultaneous experience of being a Chair, a CEO and an NXD with three different companies she is a very rare person indeed.