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How female leaders can get their first Board role

15 min read

We’re still some way from achieving gender parity on Boards but supported by government-backed reviews and mounting societal pressures, there are more and more opportunities for women looking to secure their first Board position.

Once again, our performance in the latest Hampton-Alexander Review 2020 report reinforces Odgers Berndtson’s position in the top tier of UK executive search firms accredited under the Enhanced Code of Conduct. In 2020, not only were 47% of our placements to the FTSE 350 women, of those placements, 57% were also first timers.

Deciding that you would like to be on a Board role is the biggest decision. Getting that first Board role then is about determination, being brave, pragmatic and flexible. The competition is intense and the expectations of what Board candidates should bring to the table are considerable.

How to be Board ready:

How to get your first NED position

This in-depth guide from our Board Practice can help you with your search, while below are our top tips for first-time board candidates.

  • The role of the Board is to see beyond the executive horizon and help chart a course for the company’s long-term success. Consider how you could help input to the strategy, keeping in mind both near-term pressures and longer-term goals.
  • Reaching decisions requires robust questioning but not in such a way as to cause offence or being ‘the awkward squad’. Consider how you can demonstrate your collaborative approach to problem solving rather than a directive-led style.
  • The Board’s primary language is ‘data’. Facts, analysis and data influences options and inform decisions. First time Board directors need to be comfortable in such an environment, without necessarily needing the level of financial insight needed to chair the risk and audit committees.
  • As well as the right ‘Board approach’ prospective candidates are expected to be curious about the wider macro and micro socio-economic pressures a business has to consider and reflect on what these might mean for a business; for example, are you climate change literate? Boards face mounting pressure from investors to make positive climate actions and new Board candidates will need to be able discuss how an organisation might achieve a sustainable long-term future, meeting sustainability targets.

How to approach your first Board role

Be clear about your unique selling proposition (USP); what are the skills and experiences you can bring to a company? What sorts of companies and sectors would find these appealing? Also consider which companies/sectors align with your values and motivations, and which do not.

Be strategic and proactive in your approach. Know your own data and KPIs - what have you been measured against and how have you delivered?

Know who your champions and sponsors are; who would speak to who you are, and what would they say? What do they think you could bring? Might you have access to Boards and Board directors in your own business or through friends? They can provide insights and learnings which you could harness.

How to plan for your first Board role

Look at a timeline of 12 to 18 months. Starting your Board career while you’re still an executive is a great way to build experience and credibility for what may eventually become a portfolio.

A large part of your approach to finding your first Board position is networking. Outside of the primary listed stock market indices. A significant number of new directors are sourced directly through connections, be that Board directors, company advisors or industry networking events.

Whilst you may have ‘my ideal Board’ in mind, be pragmatic and consider where else you could gain experience and learn. Non-profit Boards, governing bodies of schools or universities, hospital Boards etc. are all helpful as you build your CV. You can find more information on building your Board CV.

Finally, be social media conscious. LinkedIn should reflect your CV. All other social media should be professional but also a genuine reflection of ‘who’ you are. Be intentional with your information. There is a bourgeoning space for female leadership and professional development online and this should be capitalised on as you market yourself for that first Board position.

For more information and advice, download the guide to getting your first non-executive director role.

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