My journey to becoming a Non Executive Director (NED)
People like me don’t get jobs like these. That was the thought running through my mind at the final interview stage for a NED role.
What do I mean by people like me? Females? South Asians? Under 40’s? Sustainability professionals? State school educated? New mums? Well essentially all of the above!
Board positions are predominantly filled by white, middle aged, middle class, men. The polar opposite to me. The statistics, although improving, are still pretty shocking when it comes to women on boards and even more so when it comes to women of colour. According to the 2022 Parker Review report, only 8% of FTSE100 directors are women from minority ethnic groups, in the FTSE 250, the number is even lower at 4.5%. And those making up this statistic predominantly hold Non Executive Director roles as opposed to Executive roles (eg CEO, CFO).
So with very little representation, or any accessible role models, what made me think I could change this? Well it all began with a non-related favour for an ex-colleague of mine.
It’s nice to be nice
So much of my success has stemmed from being open to chance conversations, nurturing long standing relationships and having an inquisitive and helpful nature, and my journey to becoming a NED was no different.
When I received a random LinkedIn message asking if someone could pick my brains, I thought, sure why not? It turned out this ex-colleague of mine, Rob, wanted some help filling a Sustainability and Impact position in his company and wasn’t sure what skills he should be scouting for to fulfil the company’s specific requirements. So I shared my wisdom and told him my price, a pizza date the next time he was in the area!
Really appreciative of my ideas, Rob then went on to ask me for another favour. I’ll have to up my fees, I thought. Explaining that he wasn’t able to articulate my ideas to his boss as eloquently as I could, he asked if I’d be willing to speak directly to the CEO, and so I did.
I took the call despite being on maternity leave and did my magic; walking him through the skills their organisation would likely require and the type of candidate they should target. Impressed by my knowledge of the sector and charmed by my nature, he asked if I’d be interested in the role. I politely responded ‘ Maybe 5 years ago, it’s far too junior for me, I have bigger plans’. Quizzing me on what these bigger plans were, I shared that I wanted to have a broader impact in the field of sustainability. To advise, to consult to help bring wider change and not limit myself to helping just a single company.
He went on to explain that their board was currently looking to fill a NED position and that it could be quite fitting for someone with my sustainability background, especially as their environmental approach was under the watchful eyes of their investors. He explained that if I was interested in the role that he’d have a chat with the Chairman and we could take it from there!
I’ve always heard about how difficult it is to secure your first NED position, particularly for someone with little or no board experience. It’s a small market, without much churn, so getting a foot in the door can feel near impossible. But somehow I had a foot in (well perhaps just my toe)! My conversation with the Chairman went really well, he put me in touch with their specialist recruiters at Odgers Berndtson for a follow up conversation.
A few more conversations later and this was feeling quite real. I’d started reading up on the role of an NED, the responsibility involved, the skills it required and the liabilities involved. I’d researched courses I could attend and listened to some ‘Women on Boards’ podcasts too. The more I learnt the more I could see myself doing this.
But, the pressures of the pandemic were heightening and this company was facing extremely challenging times, particularly as it was in the retail and leisure industry. And so despite the really promising start, I received a call to say they would instead be looking to hire someone with a financial background that could help them navigate this unprecedented situation.
Ready to go again
Just as I was nearing the end of my maternity leave and readying myself for the world of work once again, I received an unexpected email from the Odgers Berndtson team asking if I was still open to exploring a NED role. Flattered that I had obviously made enough of an impression to remain on their books, I responded to say I would be really interested in understanding more.
They sent me the candidate brief for a NED position at 4imprint, a leading direct marketer of promotional products in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. As I started to read through the document, the words just jumped off the page, ‘The candidate will be a first time non-executive director, although will have a meaningful appreciation of the role and responsibility of a listed board.’
By far this was the most refreshing thing I had read in a long while. Where being a first time NED was not a desire but an actual requirement. Having researched the business, its performance and its existing board members, I felt really confident about the role and my ability to add value to the company. I had previously served on the Energy Institute Council for three years, which provided me with great exposure to the workings and governance of a board and coupled with my exposure to corporate boards during my career, would really prepare me for a NED role. I was keen on having the opportunity to get this across.
Modelling the role
I remember vividly being excited not only about the prospect being a NED had on my future career, but also about how important this representation would be in inspiring others like me to also consider and be considered for NED roles.
For a long time in my career I’ve found it difficult to find role models in my field. There’s very few people that look like me, dress like me or sound like me in positions that I’d aspire to reach. That’s when I realised that I had a gap to fill and perhaps I could be that role model for somebody else.
Following initial interviews with members of the board, I was quite quickly shortlisted to the second round and then the third. Throughout the interview process, I felt so energised about the opportunity. The final round of interviews was between three potential candidates. And whilst I stood a pretty decent chance, the odds were still against me. Despite this, following a thorough interview process, I got the call. I’d been offered a NED position at 4imprint! It felt like an absolute game changer, I was so excited to be able to spread my wings and scale the impact I could have.
In September 2021, I attended my first board meeting in London. With the lockdown rules relaxed, we managed to meet face to face, which made a welcome change from all the Teams interview interaction we had up until this point. I made a conscious effort to show up as my confident and comfortable self, which of course meant sporting my most colourful Nikes.
Fast forward six months, I’ve been on an incredibly steep learning curve. Much of the job has been new and outside of my comfort zone; Reading through board papers, understanding intercompany loan arrangements, navigating year end auditing processes and signing off company policies to name a few. But, reassuringly, just as many of the asks have played to my strengths such as; climate risk related disclosures, sustainability strategies and diversity themed discussions. It’s been so important to me to be able to bring my personal and professional experience and values to bear.
Both the executive and non-executive team have been incredibly welcoming, helping me to feel like I truly belong. Acknowledging my newness to the role but also appreciating and valuing the perspective and expertise that I bring.
I’d encourage other companies to nurture the next generation of talent, working proactively to address diversity in all its forms, because there are plenty of people like me that should be getting jobs like these.
Thank you 4imprint for paving the way.