There is a well-known Jamaican saying: “me lickle but me talawa,” which means both “don’t underestimate me” and “I may be small but I am mighty”. When I think about my own personal strategy for career growth, I have always had this in the back of my mind. In part this is because I have always had board level and leadership aspirations, and I mean always: at 15 I proudly declared to anyone that would listen that I wanted to be a CEO.
The main reason for my connection to this saying was that I knew I would be (if my career took the path I hoped it would) the youngest person on a board, probably the only or one of a few women and more than likely the only person of colour. It hurts to think that the picture at 15 is pretty much the same at 31 – diversity hasn’t improved at the rate it should, but that’s a whole other article.
So my strategy became what I call “food-chaining myself.” I would create and find opportunities to lead, in my own business and also in others. Given the statistics on women and people from ethnic backgrounds on FTSE 100, 250, 500 boards, I decided I’d cut my teeth elsewhere.
What I found is that the doors to board-level leadership are much more open in SMEs and the third sector. Especially for women. Why? My first assumption is that these businesses operate less of a closed “boys club” recruitment policy and don’t automatically gravitate towards “people like me” when thinking about what leaders they want on their team. They see talent first. They also recognise the competitive advantage of having a diverse board: I don’t mean visually, I mean in terms of experience, understanding of the world, clients, customers and industries. They don’t see new blood as a threat.
I accept that sitting on a board of a small or medium sized business or a startup might not have the same CV clout as say M&S or Facebook, but I can guarantee that the experience and opportunity is just as powerful. I would add that joining third sector and charity boards also opens up a world of insight and challenge that even a seasoned business professional can learn from.
On the board of UnLtd we have an endowment of £100 million, I have had to learn how to understand investment strategy and contribute effectively to discussions about our portfolio. On the board of the Consortium for Street Kids I was exposed to all of the planning that goes into getting a UN day ratified. My first board, the British Youth Council, helped me cut my teeth in advocacy and political engagement. Now as the chair of NCVYS (National Council for Voluntary Youth Services) and a non-executive of a portfolio of startups, I am in alternating discussions about strategy and investments, people and talent, resourcing and growth.
The exposure is priceless and I can directly see the impact of what I am saying, doing and driving in these organisations and businesses because they are smaller and welcome the extra pair of hands.
Here are my personal tips on navigating the boardroom.
By small, I mean in a startup or local charity. Get to grips with what good board governance is and isn’t before committing yourself to something bigger. Bigger is not always better either.
Follow your passions
Join a board that does something you love or are passionate about. This means you’ll have no problem sitting in a room for five hours staring at projections, because you are connected to the mission, vision and delivery of the business.
Always speak up
Do not let a meeting pass without contributing. This is controversial, I have friends that say they’d rather not say anything in meetings if they don’t have something smart to say. In my experience it’s usually the simplest question that is the most pertinent.
Don’t be afraid of saying you don’t understand something. Nine times out of ten no one else does either and there is a collective sigh of relief that someone was brave enough to say so.
By Natalie Campbell