How the next generation is breaking into company boardrooms

After 20 years in investment banking, Rupal Patel joined risk analytics fintech Acin in 2019. Since starting her role, she has met board directors and advisers — typically older people in corporate life who had been on similar trajectories to hers and now have portfolio careers involving multiple board seats. They manage their own time, do varied and interesting work and give strategic advice without the stress of an executive role. “This sounded like a good proposition for me longer-term,” she said.

But Patel soon realised getting her first board seat would be difficult. As a 44-year-old woman of Indian origin, the odds are stacked against her. The world of non-executive directors is “a closed circle of who you know”, she said. “You really need experience and a network.”

Rather than signing up for an educational programme that teaches the theoretical aspects of boardroom life, Patel wanted practical experience. She got in touch with Heather White, a matchmaker who helps executives work their way to their first NED role by facilitating boardroom apprenticeships. For a fee of £7,800, White interviews candidates and connects them with a host board for a 12-month stint as an observer. They are mentored by the chair but also assigned a coach who helps them navigate boardroom relationships and decisions. (Everyone signs non-disclosure agreements.)

In the UK, boardroom apprenticeships are still a nascent idea and data is scant on how many convert to non-executive director roles. But demand is rising, according to White.

“Lots of executives — male and female — are looking for board roles but are not getting them,” she said. For candidates, such schemes provide insight into what a seat on a corporate board involves and are a way to boost their CV.

For businesses, they can be a useful tool for finding and training a more diverse pool of future leaders and an opportunity to bring in specialists — from marketing to compliance — for a short period of time. It is also a chance to “try before you buy”, according to the chair of one of the boards that has hosted an apprentice before appointing them to a non-executive director role.

“Boards want more diverse NEDs but aren’t finding people with relevant experience,” said White.

Boardroom diversity has been in focus as big companies in Europe and the US, in particular, have questioned whether their workforces and leadership teams are truly representative of society. The reality is that most boardrooms are filled overwhelmingly with middle class, older, white men who have often reached the tops of their professions as executives and have a breadth of corporate experience. 

“There is a long debate about whether we remove experience and replace it with talent and skills, which allows more executives to become NEDs,” said Mark Freebairn, head of the board practice at headhunters Odgers Berndtson. “But then there is the question about how to develop the capability.”

Boards of FTSE 100 and 250 companies, which are under the most scrutiny by shareholders and the media, tend to be more reluctant to bring in outsiders as temporary observers for confidentiality reasons, instead focusing on developing and diversifying their own executive pipeline. They are also aware of the potential for accusations of “diversity washing”.

“Apprenticeships are great if you can get one,” said Susie Cummings, founder of Nurole, a board recruitment platform. “What’s difficult is getting boards to agree to take one on.”

Smaller companies can be more amenable to the concept. The government too has started its own initiative.

Patel was matched with Zenitech, a software development and engineering services company. She does not have legal or voting rights but can access board papers and contributes to monthly discussions. “You have to be super proactive. No one is going to come to you. This is an opportunity for learning, networking and relationship building,” said Patel.

An obvious alternative way to bring fresh voices into the boardroom would be to address diversity in executive committees. That would strengthen the pool of, for example, experienced female or non-white boardroom candidates and remove the fear many have that they are being appointed as part of a box-ticking exercise.

But there is no guarantee demographic shifts will take place naturally, according to Moni Mannings, a non-executive director at companies including easyJet, Cazoo and Hargreaves Lansdown. She is the founder of Epoc, a not-for-profit network focused on getting more people of colour on to boards. “We don’t have a charter and don’t get people to sign up to big promises. We don’t have targets. But we are asking [companies] to do stuff. Make space at your table,” she said.

Epoc is due to start its own boardroom apprenticeship — or “fellowship” — programme where companies identify a couple of high performers from ethnic minority backgrounds within their own organisations, a level or two below the executive committee, to be observers on the boards of another participating company for 18 months. The aim is to create a “virtuous circle”, said Mannings, with boardroom roles also helping to boost individuals in their day job. “It does help to amplify your executive career,” she said. “Opening access is what we need.”

Nicolina Andall, a lawyer who was a board apprentice at Aldermore Bank in the UK, sits on the board of several public institutions including as an independent panel member for the Ministry of Justice. She is part of various committees assessing and recommending senior candidates for director and judicial roles. She acknowledged the barriers in place, particularly for FTSE boards, but said it was easier to get on boards elsewhere, such as charities. Part of the issue stems from people from diverse backgrounds not putting themselves forward. “There is a lack of knowledge about what roles are out there and what an individual could potentially achieve,” she said. “They just don’t know about these things and don’t know the door is open.”

Other avenues for gaining board-level experience are opening. Courses and diplomas, including ones provided by the Corporate Governance Institute, the Institute of Directors and by the Financial Times, are covering aspects of governance, management, finance and strategy for candidates seeking board seats.

Shadow, junior or next generation boards within companies — from luxury brand Gucci to consultancy Oliver Wyman — are another way companies have sought to tackle the issue of talent versus experience. These boards, often filled with younger or under-represented voices, provide insight, feedback and ideas to the main board. One director at a company with a junior board said it was helpful to hear the views of younger colleagues, which aided recruitment.

“All of these initiatives are like going to the gym,” said Ellie Doohan, an executive coach and mentor to first-time board directors. “You start with 3kg weights and build to 5, 10 and beyond. By building muscle you build that confidence.”

But one boardroom adviser said it was unclear how many initiatives would truly succeed. She had come across women who had been “abandoned” by companies once apprenticeship programmes were over. “Many have not secured a role on a board,” she said.

Meanwhile, a non-executive director at multiple FTSE companies stressed that a proven record in executive roles was still the most important. “It’s not just about the great CV and skillset, it’s about their judgment in various scenarios,” he said. “Those that want to do it and thrust themselves forward are not necessarily the ones who are the most capable. The [people] you really want on top boards are the ones that are too successful and too busy in their own careers, making the most impact as executives.”

Even Gordon Wilson, the chair of Zenitech, which has hosted Patel, cautioned: “It’s not a silver bullet this thing . . . just because individuals have been an observer it doesn’t mean they are qualified for an NED role. Most good NEDs are people who have been a CEO or CFO or senior executive in a company.”