Women in leadership: Breaking barriers to access the non-exec world

HR leader, confident female business leader

Progress is being made, but there are still too few women in the world of non-executive boards. Helene Usherwood, a partner at Anderson Quigley, argues for why more women should be seeking non-executive positions and how they can break barriers to claim them.

More than ever, today’s boardroom’s are recognising the importance of cognitive diversity.

Cognitive diversity is about taking ideas from outside your usual frames of reference and applying them to everything: from everyday problem-solving to winning new business.

I firmly believe more women should be applying for non-executive roles because we can often approach problems or issues from a different perspective to men.

While breaking into the non-executive world has its challenges, if you’re capable of bringing your expertise to an organisation then believe me – organisations are desperate for people like you.

So, how do you crack that first non-executive role?

Do your due diligence

Organisations will usually have an idea of some of the characteristics and skills they’re seeking, but it may not be entirely obvious when reading the job description or advert.

Before starting the application process, show the organisation the respect of taking the time to understand them. Make an effort to understand their values and the direction the organisation is heading in. What can you contribute to their stated mission? What about your profile makes you uniquely qualified to make an impact?

Once you have an understanding of the organisation’s values and what they’re looking for, your job is to create a clear, compelling narrative that demonstrates precisely how you can contribute to their organisational outlook.

In your first approach, you will need to map out the skills and values you possess that make you a perfect match for their organisation. Furthermore – and crucially – you must explain why you want the role. That organisation wants to feel special and not just a number on your application hitlist. A well-crafted first contact can illustrate that you’ve done your due diligence and feel confident that you have expertise they need.

Gain a broader perspective

Our understanding of the value of diversity has developed at extraordinary speed over the last decade. People and organisations alike are increasingly realising how diversity strengthens an organisation at every level.

But increasing diversity is a broad stroke of a hiring policy, and organisations must define their goals with as much specificity as possible in order for them to be effective. An interesting development I’ve noticed over the past five years is the increased consideration of invisible diversity, which is now finally being recognised with equal importance to visible diversity. What’s the difference, though?

Visible diversity can be defined as the differences which are immediately observable when you look at someone.

Invisible diversity refers to traits that are not readily ‘seen’. These can span across a broad range of experiences and values, and by focusing on such differences we shift the discussion from “how can we increase gender and racial diversity?” to “do we have the variety of diverse perspectives to deal with complex problems and create innovative solutions?”

With this in mind, take the time to consider what makes your experience or perspective unique, and how it will be beneficial to their organisation. 

Persevere, persevere, persevere

At the preliminary stages of an application process, there’s often a clear divide in self-belief between men and women.

In my experience, women will often see a position they’re well suited to but are quick to be discouraged by elements of the job description that don’t fit their profile. This leads them to not push as hard for the role, or not to push at all. Conversely, men tend to focus much more expressly on what makes them a great match, and these considerations boost their confidence as they proceed.

At the earliest application stages, it’s not just about selling yourself to the organisation. It’s about selling that organisation to yourself.

You may have to push on a few different doors before you land that first non-exec role. Unfortunately, the first door is rarely the one that opens, however each unsuccessful approach offers a vital learning experience to boost your resilience and refine your tactics.

Your perseverance will always be your best tool to landing that first non-exec position.

Now is your chance

In my work as a recruiter, I am seeing numerous boards taking steps to improve diversity, which means there are more opportunities than ever before for women to enter the non-executive world.

An organisation’s push for diversity can often be seen as a politically correct move, but diversity of thought has a far more significant impact than simply ‘ticking a box’. Including a wider scope of experiences and skill sets in a team brings genuine value to an organisation, and vastly increases the potential for innovation and new solutions.

To this end, women should feel empowered to apply for non-executive roles and pride themselves on bringing to the boardroom their unique and fresh perspectives.

Now is your chance, so go out there and make an impact.

Helene UsherwoodAbout the author

With over 18 years’ experience Helene has appointed to senior roles within the arts, health and education fields as well as central and local government. Over the last ten years, she has specialised in the appointment of executive and non-executive directors in the NHS covering acute, ambulance service, primary care, mental health and regulatory bodies as well as national organisations such as NHS England and Healthwatch

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