I have had a very enjoyable career, firstly as a commercial property lawyer and later in law firm management. After finishing my time as Chief Executive of Morton Fraser, one of Scotland’s major law firms, a job I did for nearly twelve years, I did not want to return to legal practice (apart from anything else, my skills were too rusty!). My exposure to business through my time running the law firm and as Chairman of CBI Scotland meant I was interested in applying my skills in a broader arena and the idea of a portfolio career was attractive.
The particular positions which I hold came about through a variety of routes, but I set out to have a balanced portfolio, a mix of public, private and third sector and a mix of paid and unpaid.
Did your career path lead you to current role, for example by providing you with specific sector experience relevant to the board?
My background as a lawyer and running a law firm gave me a very general skill base. I had exposure through advising clients or understanding the business of Morton Fraser’s clients to a wide range of sectors and types of organisations, from public sector to PLC. I am always careful to say that I’m not coming to the board table as a lawyer but that background is useful in terms of the basic skills I have developed over the years.
My time as Chair of CBI Scotland introduced me to the policy landscape, interacting with UK, Scottish and Local Government. It helped me understand how policy is developed and influenced and provided me with a network of contacts who have proved very useful.
My career was never planned. I took the opportunities which presented themselves to me.
What strengths, personal and professional, did you highlight in the interview process?
This varied depending on the board and what they were looking for.
My background as a lawyer gives me good research and analytical skills, the ability to absorb information quickly and accurately and to identify key issues. I make clear that I don’t approach my role as a non-exec as a lawyer however, bringing a broader experience of having run a business to the table. So I seek to demonstrate, with examples, how I can cover off the skills of a non-exec.
One of the great challenges of being a good non-exec is being able to successfully strike the balance between supporting and challenging the executive team, so I talk through how I work to try and understand any organisation I join, getting to know the executive team (and as many other staff as is practically possible). Building relationships is key and something I enjoy doing. Beyond working with the executive team, the relationships I have built throughout my career are an asset I can bring to the table.
Having spent most of my working life in a business where we don’t make anything, what we sell is our people, their time and expertise, my passion is around how organisations get the most out of their people and I would always talk about this at interview.
Understanding what a board is looking for and what their business is about is key to ‘selling yourself’, so I have learnt to understand that, whilst throughout my life in the law firm, we always talked about clients, not consumers, in fact, I worked in a consumer facing business. I now have a Directorship with a Bank and the fact that I had worked in a business regulated by the FSA (now the FCA) was relevant to my appointment there.
In terms of other person strengths, I think collaboration, resilience and a measured approach are three I would also highlight.
What do you get out of board membership? Is it more difficult, in a non-executive, to see how your contribution impacts on the organisation and whether it is valued?
Being a non-exec is hugely rewarding. The variety of a portfolio career is particularly enjoyable but it’s also a big responsibility and it’s important that people understand the responsibilities they take on as a director or trustee. If you’re doing your job properly it should be possible to see the impact you are making. It’s important to seek feedback and larger organisations will have formal procedures for this. If your contribution is not valued, it’s time to depart!
Do you speak to other women about the opportunities or positions on boards to encourage them to apply or simply hear their views?
Absolutely. I am very keen to share my experience and encourage others to be involved in senior positions in organisations, whether as executives or non-execs. I have been involved in mentoring schemes, the Morton Fraser Business Women’s Network, the IOD’s work on Women on Boards and a number of other organisations who seek to support more diversity on boards.
I like the quote from Madeleine Albright “There’s a place in Hell reserved for women who don’t help other women.”
What do you think are the barriers to women getting onto boards? What do you think are the differences between applying for an non-executive as opposed to executive position?
I’m not sure there are real barriers. I think a lot of progress has been made, particularly in the non-exec sphere. The challenge now, I believe, is in the executive pipeline and it’s critical that all businesses (and women) look for ways to support women throughout their careers to make sure that we get the best out of the talent pool which is available. All the Chairmen I speak to are acutely aware of the benefits of having diverse boards, but equally, they will only appoint the best candidates. I am not personally in favour of quotas, but think that there are a number of other mechanisms which can be used to maintain the progress which has already been made.
Being an executive at the top of any organisation is a very demanding role. We still live in a culture where more women than men take on the lion’s share of caring, whether children or the elderly. Realistically many women opt out of the pressures of those top jobs during key years in their lives. Perhaps as we all look to having longer working lives, there is more scope for women, in later years, to come back in to those senior positions. We have age discrimination legislation, but it will be interesting to see whether we can adapt to make the most of the talent of those who ‘take time out’ mid career.
Linda is a member of the3rdimagazine and you can read her profile here.