Juliet Taylor, the chief executive of Starfish, a firm specialising in executive and non-executive recruitment, says there is a rising demand for younger trustees and non-executive directors from diverse backgrounds.
You specialise in recruiting executives, trustees and board members. What are boards looking for these days?
A growing number of companies are seeking board members from diverse backgrounds. As organisations strive to keep up with technological advancements and broader social changes, generational diversity in the boardroom is becoming more and more critical.
The aim is to open the boardroom to people who have traditionally been excluded. We want to remove traditional barriers and help people who are ready to serve on boards.
You mentioned helping people be boardroom-ready. What does this mean?
Boardroom readiness can mean several things. Our team helps candidates gain a first-hand understanding of how boards operate. What is the role of the board, what kind of legal responsibilities do you have? We also help a second cohort, people who have managerial experience and want to join a board. Being boardroom-ready means knowing what to expect as a board member and how a board works.
‘We aim to make boards relevant to people who previously would never have aspired to governance.’
Do you see an active demand from boards for more diverse directors?
We had seen an active and concerted demand for diverse boards even before the pandemic began. With our clients, we take the time to understand what diversity means to them. Sometimes, it means ethnic or cultural diversity, sometimes it means generational diversity, and increasingly, it also means socio-economic diversity. Boards want people with different socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences.
The issue we have is that there is a very heavily coded language of the boardroom which can perpetuate a lack of diversity at the board level. Part of our work is to dismantle that language and open up opportunities for people from broader walks of life.
Traditionally the language of the boardroom has ended up closing the door for a lot of people who could otherwise make an outstanding contribution; boards need to move from just talking about money and risk to how the organisation impacts society. We aim to make boards relevant to people who previously would never have aspired to governance.
How do you get your first seat on a board?
For many years boards inadvertently closed their doors to diversity by insisting that potential directors had boardroom experience.
Today, the notion that a person must have at least c-suite experience to join their first board is fading. Having a lived experience along with the skills boards need is now as important. There are many different ways you can bring a positive impact into the boardroom and be influential. Emotional intelligence and how people bring their expertise to the boardroom often matters more than professional experience alone.
This sea change in thinking provides a moment of immense opportunity for people who want to be on boards but feel locked out of the boardroom.
What matters in board work?
Being able to be part of an effective team and operate in the strategic realm. It would help if you were also comfortable with diverse opinions, and you need the EQ to recognise when to push an issue and when to accept a point. You need to be confident in using your voice in the boardroom, and you need to understand the organisation’s strategic direction and how it impacts the world around it. Some board work is procedural – you don’t need to be an expert at this, but you need to become familiar with the disciplines involved and be happy to offer a view.
What are organisations looking for in non-execs?
There are still differences between the sectors. Giant corporates may go for experienced board candidates while younger, more entrepreneurial businesses actively seek directors from a broader range of diverse backgrounds. The social sector is leading the charge regarding socio-economic and generational diversity and has some great boards.
‘We want to encourage people from all backgrounds who want to join boards but just aren’t aware how to access the opportunities.’
Has the pandemic changed things? Does it seem to have had an impact on the way organisations think about their people?
The pandemic has changed things. During a time of genuine concern, there have also been positive developments. Black Lives Matter opened up peoples’ eyes to institutional inequality, and many organisations have actively sought to change their board culture.
I want to think the one positive thing to come out of the past 18 months is that organisations have become more open to change and more aware of diversity’s importance. We are seeing a groundswell of opportunity for people who were traditionally locked out of the boardroom.
To serve on a board, you do not necessarily need formal education or management experience. Challenging, supporting, and bringing another perspective is vital in understanding your impact through your behaviours, personal influence, and your network.
The 50NED Challenge
Starfish recently launched The 50NED Challenge. Coinciding with the start of Black History Month, the aim is to help to contribute 50 ‘boardroom ready’ first-time non-executives by the end of 2023.
“The hope is that by setting ourselves this target, we will be able to do our part to break down the barriers that prevent those without board experience from being appointed to board positions. We want to encourage people from all backgrounds who want to join boards but just aren’t aware of how to access the opportunities,” says Juliet Taylor.
The 50NEDs microsite is free to use and contains honest articles and materials to help support aspiring non-executives as they start their journey to getting a first board role. There’s also a series of videos of non-executives sharing their advice and personal journeys. Find out more here.