For women, your first non-exec role is like finding a golden ticket

When you become an NED all doors are suddenly open, but more companies and headhunters need to be prepared to give women a shot.

by Bridget McIntyre
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2016

With a career that has spanned more than 25 years, the thing that astonishes me to this day is how hard it still is to obtain your first non-executive director (NED) role. A few years ago, I made the decision to transition from a full-time executive to the world of the NED. I didn’t know at the time that I was entering a completely different arena and that the transition was also going to be a tough one.

It was like trying to get hold of one of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket: very hard to find, but, once I’d got that hallowed first NED role, all doors opened for me at a surprising rate.

At that time I was 46, a qualified accountant and had worked my way up to CEO of RSA UK Insurance. I was also a member of the PLC board of RSA insurance Group and a trustee for a charity too, so I thought that would ‘tick all the boxes’, so to speak. And I’m not ashamed to admit that when the Davies Report, which focused heavily on increasing the representation of women on boards, was released in 2011 I thought, ‘My timing is good…’

Feeling very optimistic about transitioning into this new role, I booked in numerous meetings with headhunters. But I was quickly disappointed, with many telling me I was too young to be doing a role of this kind. Many were also unconvinced of my desire to take a NED role, seeing my change of career direction as a ‘blip.’ After I’d had a break, I’d want to go back to an executive role again. I was told that I needed to be patient and not set my aims too high. Some even told me that my clothing (a black dress with black boots and a ‘peep’ of purple tights) my large ring were inappropriate.

Bridget McIntyre

Not one to be disheartened, I kept having the meetings. Yet what was odd was that when I did get that interview, my past career was not discussed. Instead, it was just a chat, examining how my experience would help the board and how I would fit in. I remember vividly after that first interview, throwing my papers out, thinking I hadn’t come across well. I discovered later that this was the way all these meeting went, but no one had ever told me, so how was I meant to know?

I decided to concentrate on the headhunters who seemed to like me for who I was. I had spent 46 years becoming me, so I wasn’t seeking a reinvention any time soon. I also decided that if a company struggled with a big ring then that probably wasn’t going to be a place I would fit in.

In the end, my perseverance paid off. I met Jozef De Mey, the chairman of Ageas (formerly Fortis), which was looking for someone with financial services knowledge who could join the board in Brussels. He wanted the right candidate rather than an experienced NED and realised I could be a good fit. From that point on I had this magical golden ticket and I was in ‘the club’. The phone started to ring with opportunities and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what can headhunters, companies and candidates do to ensure that women get the representation they deserve on UK FTSE 100 and 350 boards?

It would be good if there were more Jozefs around who are prepared to give women their first break. But in their absence, one good tip for women looking to make that leap is to create a simple list of what you've done that is relevant to a NED role. For instance, mine would be demutualisation and stock market listing experience, mergers and acquisitions, regulation, statutory accounting and more. By putting this all on paper, in one list, you’ll not only reconfirm your competence to do the role, but also make it easier for a headhunter looking to extract your experience from your CV too.

When it comes to headhunters, obviously I appreciate every one wants to demonstrate their knowledge of the market and select ‘suitable’ candidates for their clients. However, I feel there is a definite tendency to look at the current pool and not even extend past the usual, stereotypical candidate.

As the latest Davies Report underlines, there is still much to do in order to increase the number of women on boards, to ensure they are a true reflection of the UK workforce. And with this in mind, I make these pleas:

1. Headhunters - widen the pool

There is a lot of talent out there, many of whom could be fantastic in a NED role, that is currently being overlooked because they do not fall into the right ‘circles’ or because they haven’t had their first NED role yet.

2. Companies - embrace the quota

As the report emphasises, board diversity enhances board performance – it’s a proven fact. Quotas are there to implement change, so explore the talent available, pick the very best talent for your needs and avoid selecting representation for selection’s sake.

3. Women – persevere

To all those looking to make that leap into a NED role, don’t get disheartened. Change takes time, but in the meantime work with people that understand you and never take no for an answer.

Bridget McIntyre is the former CEO of Royal Sun Alliance and founder of Dream On, which helps women reach their full potential in the workplace.

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