The lack of female representation in the UK’s boardrooms is well-documented. In the building society sector, for example, only about 60 of the 400 directors are women. In the FTSE 250 there are 29 organisations which have all-male boards and just 22.8% of FTSE 100 company directors are female
So how can women go about successfully applying for non-executive director (NED) roles?
Hosted by the Building Societies Association, Deborah Cooper, director and board member of executive search consultancy Warren Partners, gave a presentation to the Ladies Executive Club, in association with Mortgage Solutions, to give members the benefit of her experience.
The women gathered round the table ranged from those who’d set their own company up from scratch to top level executives at lenders, distributors and other property and mortgage-related institutions.
What is a NED?
A non-executive director (NED) is a member of a company's board of directors who is not part of the executive team. Typically a NED won’t engage in the day-to-day management of the organisation, but will be involved in policy making and planning. In part two coming shortly, Cooper explains more about executive and NED interaction in our Q&A.
Getting more women onto boards, and as NEDs in particular, is clearly a subject she’s passionate about. From an executive search point of view, and looking at building societies in particular, Cooper says some boards have an open brief while others aim for diversity.
“Diversity isn’t just about gender of course,” she says. “We're trying to bring ethnicity, and we're really hard on boards to stop them discriminating where we can. Age discrimination is still rife, even with non-executive directors. They'll say we want someone who is current, who is upward, all the language that is hiding the fact that they want someone of a certain profile.”
Cooper says that while female boardroom representation figures aren’t where we might want them to be, they’re moving in the right direction and there are opportunities out there for women wanting NED roles.
Using the letters from the NED acronym, Cooper offered her top tips for women who want to secure a NED role.
N is for "networking". As well as speaking to new or existing contacts, networking can involve attending and speaking at conferences or writing articles.
"Think of a job search as sales and marketing in disguise," says Cooper. "It's important to target organisations directly. Don't be held hostage just to which jobs are advertised. Who would you love to work for?"
Cooper says women shouldn't be afraid of contacting the chairman of companies they're interested in working for. Men will do this so why not women too?
"Men will think about who they know already who can introduce them. So assume you get to know somebody then when it is on their radar to recruit, they will think about ‘who do I know?' before they start to think about paying people like ourselves to support them in their search," she says.
"If you're less comfortable about approaching people cold, then just think about leveraging your own networks. Again, as long as you've got some organisations in mind, ask for some introductions. People will be surprisingly helpful."
E stands for "excel" in your day job: Think about what differentiates you, your brand and your USP.
"There are ways that you can make your success more visible," says Cooper, "There's a lot of research that highlights that women will tend to promote themselves less than men in organisations. Make sure you know the right people and they will support you and will be advocates for your non-executive career too."
CVs should highlight achievements and what you've delivered. Companies recruiting for NEDs look for people who have developed, grown and rationalised.
D stands for "do your homework".
"Now this bit sounds really like common sense but you'd be really surprised at what people do and what they don't do. So if it's come to the point where you've been invited to interview, do prepare," advises Cooper, "A lot of candidates, even at the most senior levels, don't do it and it shows. They can have a fantastic career to date, served on absolutely relevant boards, and they come into the interview room and they haven't done their homework."
There are a lot of ways in which you can prepare for an interview. Visit the organisation's branches or go online. Check an organisation's history too -many firms in financial services will have a chequered past, so find out.
"Do whatever you need to do to make sure you really understand what you're taking responsibility for. Go in with your eyes open. All organisations have pros and cons," says Cooper, "They'll particularly challenge you on your career motivation: Why the executive director role? How you're going to deal with it on top of your day job? Have you spoken to your existing board? Do you have their permission to do this?"
Cooper's final piece of advice is for women to take time before making a decision if they're offered a NED role: make sure it's right for you and walk away and wait for the next one if it's not.
CV tips for NED roles
- Keep your CV to a maximum of a couple of pages
- Put non-executive director experience at the top
- Make your CV outcomes focussed
- Highlight behaviours - such as strategy and leadership or financial risk management - that the organisation will be looking for