Boardrooms: ‘Strategy, People and Risk’

Are you thinking about what it would be like to be a non-executive director on a UK plc board? Helen Pitcher, Chair of Advanced Boardroom Excellence, went to talk to a room full of women thinking just that - at The Pipeline in London last week. Judging by some of the questions, some of them are in for multiple shocks even if they are successful at moving along through a search process. We share some of the advice Helen had to offer:

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Boardrooms and their inhabitants have become hugely visible in recent years. Alongside an increased professionalisation of the ‘non-executive director’ (NED) role, plc boards as a whole are increasingly expected to provide leadership for the business and its strategy – and to be seen to do so. 

This means that if you are a woman thinking about becoming a non-executive director on a UK plc board, you must do your homework when it comes to the developments in corporate governance thinking, the current news cycle, and the strategic issues facing any business for which you wish to be considered. 

Each plc boardroom is unique to itself in terms of the dynamic it contains. Being well-informed is essential to any bid to be part of a successful team. “If you don’t want to kiss a lot of frogs and get absolutely nowhere, make sure you know what you want in terms of a board position and ask for it” said Helen. 

Non-executive directors are expected to challenge, and women typically challenge better than men, she said. “But once you are in place, it’s very important to think of the tone of your challenge and consider how you share. Knowing what to share in the room and what to take outside, is key. Make sure you think about yourself and how you come across, about what you can bring to the board and be prepared to speak to that. “Cultivate resilience” she told the women.

“As a board director, you ought to ask yourself; ‘what should be keeping me up at night?’ and making sure you get the answers” said Helen. Access to boardroom colleagues is key – and if the Chairman does not appear to be supportive, it’s best to walk away, rather than accepting the position simply to ‘get on a board.’

Nobody who is investing time and money in exploring their development potential for executive and non-executive positions in senior management should ever ask a question in public that could be answered with a simple bit of research. 

There are many resources available and a good place to start might be at the website of the UK’s corporate governance watchdog, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). It offers documents for download such as the Developments In Corporate Governance And Stewardship In 2016.

The FRC’s project on corporate culture is ongoing and is a useful place to start for anyone seeking to understand the growing importance being placed on the behaviour of boardrooms. 

But equally important is the realisation that although there is an enormous shortage of women in the ranks of management, - highlighted by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) with its recent project CMI Women - you also have to have the appetite and the skills to get there.

Boards are about ‘Strategy, People and Risk’ said Helen at the start of her presentation for The Pipeline. Being financially literate is a ‘must-have’ and being aware of business news and thinking is expected. 

“The reason I love working with boards is that it is all constantly evolving” she said. But by definition, a constantly evolving environment requires close attention by anyone who aspires to become part of it, and to play a valuable role.

In a world increasingly made glaringly visible by the arrival of social media, it is also essential to be ‘media savvy’ and be “aware of how you come across” said Helen. Female candidates who are uncertain of quite what to do first might wish to start by updating the profiles they have put on social media – and making sure that as a snapshot, they offer a compelling first impression to anyone doing an initial ‘search’ in an executive search process.


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