Carola: Today, I would like to introduce Dr Scarlett Brown and Sarah Pierman, the two formidable founders of Dynamic Boards. Dynamic Boards is on the bold mission to make boards more dynamic and diverse, they inspire and support companies to maximise their performance and value with an optimum mix of skills, experiences and perspectives. The two combine Scarlett’s academic career in research on leadership, diversity in leadership teams and on boards with Sarah’s impressive early career in banking and subsequent entrepreneurial foray into the world of start-ups. Both women have served on boards before the age of thirty.
Sarah: Carola thank you for having us. I’ll kick us off and tell a bit about my story and then you can hear how Scarlett’s and my story weave together. I became a non-exec director on the board of a specialist bank when I was twentynine and around that time I got asked to speak on panels. I did lots of public speaking around women on boards and the improvement in gender representation in particular, and I was the first woman on that board. But the thing that started to frustrate me was they were only talking about gender, and I was twentynine when I joined the board and the other independent non-execs were an average age of sixty eight. And so I felt that actually, the age difference and the fact that I’d worked in technology start-ups as well as banking brought a huge amount of difference to that board and that kind of difference we weren’t talking about yet.
So I guess I started to think I’d love to see 50/50 gender boards, but alongside that, I’d love to see a better mix of ages, of ethnicities, of neuro diversity, of all sorts of elements of diversity and to kind of move the conversation on from ticking a couple of boxes to creating a really good dynamic mix on a board. So that was one of my dawnings. The other dawning was I’d go to networking events and just mentioned the phrase ‘non-exec director’ and people would say to me, “I looked into that, but I found these websites where you have to pay money to be on board roles and that put me off or I paid the money and it came to nothing.” So those are my two frustrations. We need to think holistically about how we get a good mix of people around the board table and we need to have a way for people to see the board roles for free. So I developed this business idea of Dynamic Boards and the key element to it was it had to be free for candidates to be able to view board roles and then I was pitching it and two different people within weeks said “You’ve got to meet Dr Scarlett Brown.”
Carola: Amazing. The impressive side is really that you both have served on boards in an advisory and non-exec role within the first ten years of your career, so I’d love to hear your story Scarlett as well.
Scarlett: Yeah, absolutely. We kind of got set up, Sarah and I. People said you should definitely meet because you’re obviously both so passionate in the same area. My background. I kind of got into this space by through academic research as I did a PhD looking at how non-executive directors are recruited onto boards, and this was as Sarah said a time when women on boards was a really big deal and so I was looking at the differences between men and women’s experiences and how they were getting roles on boards. I spent three or four years looking at all the different pitfalls that are present in the way that organisations find their non-execs and the way that people try and become non-execs and then I met Sarah and she gave me this fantastic pitch about Dynamic Boards. And I said, Sarah, to be honest, it feels like you’ve read my PhD and then you turned it into a business idea and from that the marriage was born.
We’ve been running Dynamic Boards together for a few years now, but of course one of the things that has been the key and the reason why we’re both so passionate about it is because not only do we want to help other people become non-execs, but we are also non-execs ourselves.
Carola: It’s really impressive to hear your story – why you have created Dynamic Boards with the vision to champion diversity of non-executive and advisory boards across gender, ethnicity and neurodiversity. And we’ll talk more about the sort of mechanics of how people get on a board, how did they get the first board role and how can businesses, CEOs really, find the right people a little bit later, but now I would like to go in a little bit more detail or hear about your experience either from your own experience of serving on boards, but also what you’ve seen from your clients and candidates on Dynamic Boards. How have you seen businesses benefit from the expertise and insights from non-execs and board advisers?
Sarah: I think the key thing is the word mentioned there – independence. The key aspect of this is that you’ve got a couple of people maybe two, three or four people who are executives in the business, so they’re full time and they are in there every day, they know the business really well, they know the nitty-gritty and that means they get drawn into all the decision-making points on a day to day basis. The non-exec directors or board advisors are there to be a breath of fresh air to bring independent thought and perspective to the board. They might be specialists in a specific area, so they might know a lot about tech and digital, but when they arrive at a board meeting, they’re going to have the opportunity to speak into everything that’s going on in the business and for the executive, it’s phenomenally helpful to have some outsiders to be able to run your ideas past and to be able to hear what others think of this situation that you might have spent the last three weeks working on every day, all your hours of the day and this gives you a fresh perspective and independent perspective. I mean, there are lots of other elements to it, like accountability and governance and making sure that you’ve got risk frameworks and things like that in place that are adequately appropriate for the business, but for me, the independence and the fresh perspective is the real key.
Scarlett: I would totally agree with that. I think from our own experience, my experience and from others we speak to the moments where you add that real value is either when the organisation with the leaders really need support around a decision or where naturally, the organisation needs a bit of a challenge and pushing towards something. I see that for me, I’m trying to think about being a good non-executive – am I giving the right support and am I challenging them and actually being both of those things. Being a good critical friend is really what it all comes down to for me.
Sarah: And I think there’s an opportunity in how you construct a board to recognise that the executives don’t have everything. An executive doesn’t come to the role of a CEO, for example, having worked in every different area of the business and that’s great. They’re going to be brilliant at something, but they’re going to have blind spots and hopefully, across the board, you’ve got a collection of people that cover all the key areas – that you’ve got people that have good insights when it comes to it. For example, employee relations – it might be that’s not something the CEO is incredibly strong in, so you can gather that expertise across the table to make sure that you’re able to make good decisions as a collective.
Carola: Thank you both for those insights on how the focus or purpose of boards have shifted from accountability towards adding creativity, and also spreading specialist expertise from hot spots. Executive decision making and strategy setting has become significantly more complex and bringing in reference points from across a wide spectrum of topics have such impact and value. And that sort of leads me into my next question. A CEO today faces much more complexity in business. Everything’s very fast and even more accelerating – there are the new domains in business, such as digital and transformation and sustainability, but also equity, diversity and inclusion. So have you seen cases or businesses where non-execs or board advisers have really helped businesses build capability in these areas?
Scarlett: Yeah, definitely, we’re seeing it more and more. I think there were times when non-execs were really there for the accountability part, and so really, the skills that organisations were looking for might be financial, possibly a bit of legal and may be operational, but I think we’re seeing more and more organisations that are looking for something that they know they don’t have internally in areas where perhaps it just isn’t right or appropriate to put in a whole area within the organisation but they really need that advice at the strategic level. We see it more and more with the roles that we have on Dynamic Boards around diversity and inclusion and also that breadth of experiences. As Sarah said, it’s not just about saying we need someone with expertise in digital transformation, can we get someone with that? It’s like, how do you get that alongside other skills and experiences that can give you that kind of fresh perspective. We’re seeing more and more thinking in roles where organisations are just starting to be that little bit more, I guess, creative is probably a good word for it, like creative in what they’re looking for and really thinking about that non-exec as some somebody that really adds value. I don’t say that to be critical of the past or some types of non-execs, but I think the expectation that a non-exec comes with brings a certain amount of value. I think that is certainly something that is starting to shift, I think for the better. It makes the job much more fulfilling for the individuals and much more valuable for the organisations.
Sarah: Yeah, I’m with that. I think this might be a bit of a blunt way to look at it but if you look at the costs of running a business today versus what they were 20 years ago, as Scarlett mentions, digital transformation wasn’t really on the agenda, you didn’t need to have a board member that was focused on that thirty years ago because that wasn’t a big area of cost and consideration for the business, but it is now. And if you’re making decisions and no one around your board table has good insights on how to make sure that you are procuring the right outsourced provider, whether you are running that contract adequately, whether you are sufficiently creative and forward-looking and how you’re meant to manage the investment. If you don’t have people that get that and have experience in it and have done it several times before then you will be at a loss at some point in time. So I think this is where businesses realise that the historic board construct just isn’t fit for the decision making required on boards today. This a really good opportunity and we found with Dynamic Boards that we post loads of roles where organisations have asked for those skills and we’ve got lots of candidates who have those skills and I often feel like we’ve got this melting pot, particularly in London. There is a phenomenal number of people who worked in digital transformation and in IT and web development and we need to look at how do we share that resource across the country with UK SMEs and with UK Corporates that so need those insights around the board table. That’s something that’s really excited us. We shared a role in the last week where an organisation was looking for that in particular and we’ve been able to push it out to the candidates that have that skill set. It really excites me to imagine a board table that never had that voice around the table that is now going to have it and will make better decisions as a result.
Carola: That is amazing, thanks for those insights. A trend that we’re seeing is that many businesses prefer advisors who are still in executive roles. So it means that the typical profile of the people at the end of their career, serving on boards, that is overtaken by a new generation coming in of executives who are still in their day jobs, so to speak, but serve on boards. So, what’s the upside of this?
Sarah: We talk about this a lot – this is multi-generational boards. We don’t see it as out with the old and in with the young, we see it as a mix, that’s what we need to be working towards. It’s really valuable to have people that have forty years of career experience, who have maybe bought and sold several businesses, who have had a long tenure as a CEO, all of that core skill set that people traditionally associate with non-exec work is still really useful. But we also want people who worked in very disruptive sectors at thirty-two and who are the CTO of a tech company. That’s an incredibly useful skill for the board as well. So for me, we’re in an era where we could truly start looking at creating dynamic boards where we got that kind of mix. Since we launched Dynamic Boards every few months we see more organisations mentioning age mix, mentioning that you could still have a full-time role and be doing their non-exec role. We’re seeing a shift in this, and we think it’s a growing trend for boards to look younger and boards to recognise that this may not be something that people do as part of a portfolio career instead of full-time role. And on the other side, we’ve seen employers like the fact that their employees getting alternative experience and they are being developed and trained elsewhere. They’re going bring that skill set back to where they’ve got that full-time role so they don’t see it as competitive to their time in the way that I think traditionally they did and it is also potentially useful for employee retention.
Scarlett: For us, it’s a win-win in that the individuals themselves get experience in other organisations that they wouldn’t have otherwise and that undoubtedly makes them better at their day jobs and they’re bringing that experience back in. But I think for the organisations that have them, I completely echo Sarah’s point that it helps you get that mix on your board. When you know you’ve got people who, it’s not even skin in the game, they are still in the game, right there, still doing it and facing the challenges day today. I think it’s been really interesting. I’ve seen quite a few examples, particularly last year responding to the pandemic and how organisations have had to face things that are, to overuse the word, completely unprecedented. In those situations where there isn’t a playbook to know how to do this, where somebody who’s had fifty years’ experience might not have a response to it. Having somebody who’s going through that similar sort of thing in another organisation is hugely helpful. I’ve seen it particularly in a couple of examples where, for instance, with particularly around people management and actually having an understanding and skills with diversity and inclusion and promoting positive cultures and workplace transformation. All of those things require you, if you’re going to do them well, they require you to have an understanding of how the situation is right now because it requires insights on how other organisations are running right now like we’re dealing with a situation that we don’t even have a word for. So I think that also means you get up to date relevant experience and that can only be a good thing. I think we’re just seeing a trend towards that and away from the expectation and the big concern that people wouldn’t have time to do both. As everybody knows that if you want something done well, you ask a busy person, right? So I think it is that moving away from that and that concept, that it’s a clash or there’s a conflict, I think as well is really starting to fade as well.
Carola: This really brings the conversation onto Modern Leadership because these dynamics we are seeing are putting a lot of pressure on companies today, but also the leadership standard is shifting. So through your specific lens, how is leadership changing?
Sarah: Yes, from my perspective, I think one of the key things is looking at all the different stakeholders that businesses or organisations are impacting. For example, the employees, how does that impact them? When we look at last year’s discussions that have been raised in the media, things like Uber and how they treat their workers or Deliveroo. There’s an awful lot more discussion around that responsibility, and I think that’s brilliant because what we’re looking at is creating businesses that are contributing, not just to the bottom line profit, not just to shareholders but actually to the whole of society. And we’re also looking at how they contribute to the world, to the physical world. We’ve expanded our understanding of what leadership impacts, what it should impact and the responsibility that goes with that position. I think that’s a brilliant shift, and I think that with the board is actually part of how a leader could do that well. It sounds like a heavy burden to be placed on a leader’s shoulders, but actually, around the board table that’s an opportunity to be able to discuss and debate how you do that and to make sure that with your collective voices you’ve got enough insights into that. We were not just touching on age, but actually, having a mix of ages around the table can help you understand those different stakeholder groups because some of them might be closer in age to the employee population or have contacts to suppliers and other stakeholders that are impacted. So I think it’s a great shift.
Scarlett: Completely agree. One of the things that I was going to say in response to your question Carola was the piece that I would call responsible leadership. It is exactly that stakeholder awareness. It’s the expectation from society that the organisations are led in a way that considers their wider stakeholders. What that means for leadership is that there is more personal sense. We saw this through the pandemic, but it was a trend that existed before which is that the expectations on leaders are kind of moving away from this sense of leaders having to be stoic and having to be cold and those kinds of things, and are actually moving towards a much more human-centred approach to leadership. So the pandemic is a brilliant example of this. This time last year, no organisational leader knew what they were doing and they will all admit that. We were all in the same very confusing boat. What that means is that you can’t as a leader say “Don’t worry, guys I have got all the answers, we’re just going to go this way, I’m the leader, I’ve got the idea, everybody follows me.” Which is the traditional form of leadership. Leaders had to be more humble. They had to be far more comfortable saying I don’t know what the answer is and asking people as well. A brilliant example from one of the banks was that leaders of the bank were saying we had to let our branch managers lead on what they wanted to do on a day to day basis because they had the answers and we didn’t. We can’t be coming down from head office with these ideas and saying this is what should happen. Leadership now is much more about ensuring that the people below you in the organisation have power, it’s about devolution of power, it’s about it being more human, being more honest and open and transparent and as Sarah says, all of those things don’t just happen overnight, they are difficult skills to learn.
Sarah: There’s a really human relational point to this that we’ve seen over the last year at Dynamic Boards. One of the things we wanted to do right from the beginning did video interviews with CEOs, Chairs or members of the board when they’re recruiting. We advertise board roles, that’s what we do, but actually through that process most of the time, people are deciding whether to join a board based on reading a text advert and that’s actually really cold. You don’t get much of a feel for an organisation reading a text advert. So we started saying to companies if we’re running a campaign for you can we interview you? Can we hear a bit from one of your execs or board members and that has gone down so well with our candidate base and that’s because of exactly what Scarlett was just saying. It’s being human, being relational, allowing your values to come out through informal conversation and I think the general consumer expects more integrity from leaders. That in everything they’re doing those values should be coming across. I’m pleased to say that with the interviews we’ve really seen that shine through with the leaders that have that. It really creates a wonderful relationship and experiences in getting to know the leader before applying to join a board and which really points to this shift that you’re talking about here.
Scarlett: That follows through into leaders, particularly around the board, in this expectation that they should be visible and approachable. And again, the pandemic and the technology-enabled engagement stuff has been really fascinating for this. The expectation that boards should engage with people within the organisation is something, particularly in the larger and listed companies, within the code now. There’s an expectation that the non-execs should be engaging with employees, and there should be a method for doing that and one of the wonderful things again about the pandemic and the move to video is that when you are on screen, everybody is the same size, everybody is the same and get the same space on the screen with no corner office and none of the usual indicators of seniority that we carry with us all the time when you’re within an organisation. Add to that, through the pandemic leaders are much more likely to open up constant streams of communication. They are communicating with their teams and their whole organisation sometimes as often as once or twice a week. That humanising element you suddenly realise. I’d speak to people talking about their board engagement activities and they say that one of the biggest impacts that it’s had is that people within the organisation realised that the board are human. That idea for me just solidifies both what I think needs to change about leadership and what I think needs to change about our concept of boards and non-execs. They’re a bunch of humans trying to make human decisions about an organisation which is also just a collection of humans trying to achieve something. If we can move towards that concept, actually we’re creating a much more human-centred approach to both leadership and management. Then actually we can be much more effective because we do have that sense that we are all kind of in it together and I think that for me really sums up the biggest shift that there’s a much wider expectation on everybody that an organisation is a bunch of humans rather than a very complex and something that you could analyse just using zeros and ones and pieces of paper.
Carola: You both have summarised and articulated the insights I have collected over the last eighteen months, speaking to over two hundred leaders on the Modern Leadership project. Now onto the practical side of things for our listeners who are interested in serving on boards what are the skill sets and mindsets that businesses are looking for in their non-execs and board advisors?
Sarah: There’s a huge mix in what boards are looking for, and there are some common themes. When you’re looking at being a non-exec or a board adviser, you’re all talking about being involved at the strategic decision-making level. So it’s not being involved in the nitty-gritty. It’s not an operational role. And so, from a mindset perspective for lots of people who’ve never done a role at that level before, that’s a big shift. You are going to be involved in strategic decision making, and you’re going to need to stay generally at that level. I know that I found that tricky at times because I’m someone who also enjoys getting into the nitty-gritty so that’s a big mindset shift. In terms of the skill set, we have seen everything come up – every different skillset under the sun. As you mentioned earlier, Carola, people are asking for people who have a good understanding of diversity and inclusion now. That’s a skill set that we didn’t see a few years ago. We see a lot of people mentioning digital skills. We still see all the traditional skills, people looking for accountants, auditors and there’s a really big spectrum. The exciting thing is when we see businesses really reflect on what they need and then say things like we want someone who understands the customer’s voice and is good at listening to customers and understanding their needs. That’s something that traditional boards probably haven’t put much emphasis on. So it is shifting, but it’s very broad.
Carola: So if someone’s getting into this for the first time, how can they prepare for a career in non-exec or board advisory roles?
Scarlett: We would say sign on to Dynamic Boards where you can read all the adverts and see the range of roles you could apply for. I think what Sarah said about the strategic part is easy to say and sometimes hard to know what that means. And I think that really, the pitfalls that people fall into is not really getting what value you can bring to an organisation and really thinking through that. Kind of back to that piece was talking about earlier. You need to think about how you’re both challenging and also supporting the organisation to do what it needs to do. One of the biggest challenges can sometimes be as a non-exec that they don’t have to listen to you so quite often you can give them a whole bunch of advice and then they will go a different direction and that’s just being a non-exec. So I think the mindset shift is the hardest bit to explain and to teach, but it’s something that you do get a sense of as you go through.
There are all sorts of ways to get different kinds of non-exec experience and one of the things that we often advise when talking to people about how do you build it into your career is about taking opportunities throughout your career – opportunities to look at different parts of the business, opportunities can be internally as well. If you’re within a big organisation, how do you get sight and oversight over other parts of the business? Because one of the big challenges that I think people will find is that if you’re in a particular function of an organisation and perhaps you’re a specialist, say you’ve worked in marketing your whole life, or in HR or operations, it could be very easy to get pigeonholed and to not be able to take that bigger strategic view. I think you need both. You need your expertise area – you know that you’re a marketing expert but also being able to translate that experience into a broader strategic view so you know where it fits within an organisation. Traditionally, it was felt that you can’t be a good non-exec unless you’ve been a CEO where you’ve led a company because that’s the only way that you could get oversight over the whole of an organisation. That’s really one of the myths that we bust all the time. It is perfectly possible to get that strategic oversight and experience whilst you are working your way through your career.
Sarah: I’d second what Scarlett said. Getting opportunities to be at the strategic decision-making level of whatever it is that you do will develop the skillset that you need for a future board career or a future board role. It might be that this is something that you do for twenty years – you do a few different board roles, but it’s only ever one alongside your career and that really excites me because I think something that we’ve seen in the market is lots of people having five board roles. If you imagine how many people there are circulating in that pool it’s much smaller than if everyone had one board role so actually there’s a lot of merit in just doing one. When I was twenty-six I was a charity trustee and then when I was twenty-nine I was a non-exec so actually, the charity trustee role gave me an understanding of decision making with a group of people who were in that instance quite a bit older than me and were in very senior roles and learning to be able to use my voice and challenge within that environment was a really helpful foundation before I went for a non-exec role and I actually doubt I would have gotten my non-exec role without that experience.
Carola: Wonderful, and so to the other side of the fence what should a CEO think about when building an advisory board?
Sarah: We’ve seen it actually – in the last couple of weeks we’ve worked with World Transport Agency, an international logistics business. They are family owned and they were building an advisory board so they came to Scarlett and myself for a meeting with them to talk to them about what they were looking for and we’ve advertised that role. So for them and for many others, it’s about getting an independent perspective around the table. It was really helpful for them to talk about what perspectives they are lacking when they look at the executive team. There were some obvious gaps. One was financing and one was IT. They were also looking at succession as part of that when one of their chairs steps down what the gap will be there. So I think it’s looking to the long term and looking at what insights do we need to be able to make great decisions as a collective and where are those gaps. People talk about it as a board evaluation – I’ve seen board evaluations that can be quite complex and somehow miss the really big important points. I think keeping it simple looking at and talking about the skills and the experiences that you have around the table and those that you know would add a lot of value to your collective decision making. I think it’s important as well to create clear expectations when you’re going out to the market and letting people know about the role of what you’re looking for. What the time commitment might be, how often you want to meet and what sort of skills and experience do you want those candidates to have. The more precise you can be the easier is to make sure that you’re getting people that are really going to add value. Don’t just be wowed by someone who’s got loads of experience. Really think about content.
Scarlett: I would completely agree with that and I think it’s interesting that we’ve seen both sides of the coin through the work we’ve been doing. As Sarah said, the example of an organisation that was getting board advisors for the first time. This is something that we are hugely encouraging and I think for organisations who are thinking about doing that my advice would be – absolutely go for it and don’t be nervous because I think a lot of organisations are very nervous about that first non-exec hire; about that first building of a board of advisors. There are lots of ways to do that. We do see organisations going for the board advisor rather than the non-executive director and I won’t go into the details about the difference right now because it’s slightly boring and governance nerdy. There are advantages to advisory boards rather than full boards. We continue to emphasise that so you can get an unbelievable amount of value out of an advisory board. I would say that to all organisations who have not done it before. At the other end of the scale the organisations that have always had boards – we see this in charities, housing associations, NHS trusts and companies – it can be tempting when you have somebody stepping down to think we just need to replace that person, so we need to find somebody who is the same as that person. Actually, use the opportunity to every year or every time somebody steps down and really have a rethink about what are those things that you might be missing. The obvious place to start with that is diversity. If you look around the board table and you can have a conversation between you about what perspectives are we bringing can sometimes be an interesting conversation. It’s not just about how many women and how many men have we got, but what backgrounds do we have, where did we grow up, what kind of values are we bringing to it. All of those things create diversity. So I think, using the opportunity to really think about what kind of diversity you might want can be brilliant. Then cross-referencing that with what Sarah said – what are the skills and experiences that you might be missing and for that it’s about what are your strategic goals. If you know you want to do the digital transformation in the next two years, you need the digital experience. If you know that your culture is a risk area for you, somebody who understands people and culture will be hugely valuable. And if you don’t have a key strategic gap then you get to be creative, which is the best bit. We see it more and more now where companies say we’re pretty flexible about what we want, we know we need fresh eyes, but we don’t mind where those eyes come from. That just makes me want to jump up and down because that’s an organisation that’s really comfortable saying ‘Bring your value to us and tell us what you’d add rather than us being prescriptive.’ I think the more organisations that can do that, the more we’re going to see Modern Leadership, Dynamic Boards and these kinds of concepts. We’re going to see them in practice more and more – the more that organisations can be that little bit brave.
Carola: Great, thanks for that. So the key insight here, for anyone who is interested in adding board advisors or non-exec work into their career, is to think about how you can add value to the strategic decision making of the leadership team.
You can get in touch with me on at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for listening.
This podcast is produced by a Nadine Daniel and the music is by www.kateybrooks.com