Anica Alvarez Nishio
NED for VAPC (Arm’s Length Advisory Body to the Ministry of Defence); National Institute of Health and Care Excellence Quality Standards Advisory Committee, National Institute of Health Research Programme Grants for Applied Research
Forging a strategic board career path via an unusual route
She specialises in values-led organisational development and her cross-sector experience covers health, academia, the penal system and veterans’ affairs. She’s worked across the private, not-for-profit and public sectors, and is known for her nuanced skill in socially attuned problem solving. But what impresses you most about Anica is her undaunting commitment to seeing challenges as opportunities, and her genuine interest in people.
Her early career in Hollywood film and publishing in London isn’t the obvious springboard into non-executive director roles, but she sums it up well: ‘Your typical strategic business journey isn’t how it always is – life helps shape your career.’
Having graduated from university in America, she decided to put off her dreams of travel to find a way to pay off her large student debt. She headed off to Hollywood where she ‘fell into the film business’ and ended up working first in a talent agency, then at Colombia Pictures, and finally running a production company for one of the first female directors to get major film contracts.
After getting married and travelling to England for what was initially a three-week stint only to find herself in the U.K. for much longer than expected, she applied her skills working with writers and began again at the bottom in a new industry – publishing. Again, she worked her way up, this time into a role as an editor at a literary publishing house. It may sound charmed, but Anica is clear that she worked hard to leverage her experience and turn challenge into opportunity. ‘It was one of those things where what could’ve been really quite challenging ended up being a terrific opportunity.’ ‘One of the things I really believe in is that there’s no substitute for hard work.’
Addressing the early health challenges of her children, raising daughters and providing end-of-life care to her mother-in-law led to part-time work in the public sector around issues important to her: advocacy, education, health care and the penal system.
When she was ready to return to full-time work, she asked herself, ‘What next? And why?’
Know your ‘why’
The key to Anica’s values-led approach is constantly challenging yourself about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
She advises women applying for board memberships to adopt this approach.
‘If you’re rigorous and honest with yourself about your values, it will make answering interview questions quite easy because the responses will be authentic to you.’
It’s not surprising, then, that the roles she has are in those areas that align most closely with her values – whether it’s the Quality Committee for Health Education England, the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Erlestoke or the Veterans Advisory Committee.
‘Most of my work is about bringing the voice of the public into frontline decision making in some way or another. I’m currently embarking on a Masters in AI and Ethics at Cambridge University, which leverages my values-led strategy and governance work and my interest in technology, and marries these to my ethical and advocacy concerns.’
Produce a skills-led CV
While Anica has experienced many of the challenges other people have when re-entering the workforce – cultural barriers, loss of confidence, ageism and imposter syndrome – she maintains that having a non-traditional pathway has naturally lent itself to a skills-led, rather than jobs-led CV.
‘It’s really challenging, but you have to dig deep about how your skills transfer to wherever you want to see yourself. I was caring for a woman at the end of her life and for ill babies. That made me think about how frontline services and ancillary care are delivered. Very often, you know more than you think you do.’
One of the things that board recruiters tell us is they want to know what makes you tick. Sometimes we focus so much on our board experience that we lose sight of this.
For Anica, being values-led is the key to figuring out your unique value add. ‘My value add is about looking at challenge as an opportunity, and about being able to go into really difficult situations and bring people and institutions with widely diverging cultures or points of view together to find solutions. Getting prisoners and guards to communicate more effectively with each other is not easy, but gosh it is great when it works.’
It also gives her clarity on her preference for non-executive roles, which offer more scope for strategising and working across sectors.
When it comes to networking, for Anica again it comes down to old-fashioned values: be nice. It makes the world a happier place, and it is sensible, too. ‘One of the things someone told me early in the film business is that everyone you meet on the way up in Hollywood is also going to meet you on the way down. That stuck with me. Be as nice to the person parking your car as the senior person interviewing you – you never know where the next hot tip will come from. And help people when you can. It’s just a better way to be.’
Be canny about what you apply for. There are certainly barriers to women finding roles in traditionally male sectors, such as prisons and security, but again, she suggests seeing this as an opportunity to take yourself out of your comfort zone and to learn. ‘I happen to be very committed to addressing the lack of trust between the military and non-military worlds. But it doesn’t hurt that I’m a woman in a traditionally male area.’ That said, public appointments are much more work than the job description implies. Although there are training opportunities, it’s important to make sure you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you, so you can tease out the actualities of the role.
Overall the key to Anica’s success has been in uniting her diverse experience into a compelling ‘value-add’ to the boardroom: seeing challenges as opportunities, being committed to her community, and genuinely enjoying engaging with those around her. It allows her to articulate the cross-cutting skills, and importantly values, she brings to a range of NED roles.