Making the step up to board level can be daunting—and many women may even be discouraged to apply for roles due to feelings of imposter syndrome. In the third part in a series of online events celebrating Women in Risk and Control’s first anniversary, Metro Bank non-executive director, Acin strategic advisor and host Sally Clark was joined by Kelly Shannon, Founder and CEO of Women Lead Daily; Nirvana Farhadi, Senior Advisory Board Member at Grant Thornton UK LLP; Tony Stubbs, CEO and Founder of Transpire-Global Director Network; and Louise Chaplin, Partner and Head of Board Practice at EtonBridge, to discuss why boards need more diversity and how people should approach the transition to non-executive roles. 

Here are five key takeaways from the webinar: 

1. How boardrooms are approaching diversity 

Investors are demanding boardrooms become more diverse—and that diversity is a broad church, from diversity of thought or background to diversity of heritage or gender, says Chaplin. The pandemic has forced some organisations to pivot their business strategies, increasing the need for diversity of experience at board level. “It has created an opportunity for diversity of thought and creative thinking and an opportunity for candidates that perhaps wouldn’t have been appropriate pre-pandemic,” says Chaplin. Covid-19 has also created opportunities for board members to join from diverse locations given that board meetings no longer need to be conducted face-to-face, she says. Boards are also looking for diverse candidates that have a background in ESG to help implement policies around environmental targets and social and governance criteria, says Stubbs. 

2. What risk and control professionals can offer 

Risk professionals tend to have a highly analytical mindset while women also tend to have an ability to look at issues more holistically, which is a huge benefit to boards, says Shannon. “They also bring in communication skills and the ability to manage a lot of moving pieces,” as well as monitor for events that could impact the future of the organisation’s mission and vision, she says. Farhadi says it is also important to look at candidates individually rather than based on their gender. “When we’re trying to tick all the diversity boxes, make sure we don’t put people in boxes—really look at them and see what they bring to the table,” she says. The exposure you get to boardrooms when working in control functions can also give you valuable insights into how the board works, Clark adds. 

3. What skills do you need?  

Potential candidates need to think about where they add value and how their experience fits in. “It’s really important to prepare so that you’re aligning skillsets—the board is buying your previous experience and expertise and your ability to communicate and ask the right questions,” says Chaplin. It is not just expertise that candidates need, but soft skills too, such as having presence and the ability to influence, says Shannon. That means being able to advocate your ideas—the vision, the impact and the next steps—so they are executed by others. “That’s a big transition for a lot of people’s mindsets in terms of how they communicate,” she says. Stubbs adds that people should always seek input from their peers. “Everybody has a best foot to put forward, but it’s actually quite difficult to do that on your own,” he says. “Think about your network—they can really help you understand what your USPs as a non-exec might look like.” 

4. When is the right time? 

The pace of digital transformation means there is an increasing need for digital natives to sit on boards. “I would challenge any chairman in the latter part of their non-exec career to say do you really know the right questions to ask because you haven’t been part of that internet journey as you were growing up,” says Chaplin. “The generations coming through have a very different outlook from the current boardroom and it’s really important to understand that.” There is a perception that you have to be a certain age to participate on a board, but it is really about your experience and the perspective you can bring, says Shannon. People from a risk, compliance, legal or audit role who can help organisations prioritise and identify potential issues may be ready sooner than they think, she says. 

5. Practical steps to take 

People should think carefully about the time commitments they need to make, particularly if it is their first role. “If it says three days a month, at least double that and probably treble it for your first role because you will want to be super extra well prepared, so give yourself the time to be able to do that,” says Stubbs. A good rule of thumb is four (board roles) and no more, he says. If one of those boards gets a takeover approach or plans an IPO, then the job can quickly become full time. Shannon says that it is important to be organised and committed, while Farhadi adds that it is critical to fully understand the business you are advising and what their issues and pain points are.  

Final thoughts  

  • “Go on the journey of looking at your skills and expertise and how it can be applied in a board-type of role—and be willing to share your perspective with people.” – Kelly Shannon  
  • “Consider the power and preciousness of pause—really dig into your motivation for wanting to do this and think about not only what you can offer but what do you want to offer. If you do that upfront that will pay huge dividends.” – Tony Stubbs 
  • “Use your network and really get their insight and use formal and informal feedback.” – Louise Chaplin 
  • “Have faith in yourself and your abilities and the uniqueness of what you bring to the table—there’s a reason they wanted you there. And don’t speak out just because you want to be heard, speak out when you’ve got something useful to say.” – Nirvana Farhadi 
  • “Just go for it—don’t think you can’t get it. People who are coming from a women in risk and control background will have lots to bring to the boardroom and to contribute going forward.” – Sally Clark 

Click here to watch the webinar.

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