Carolyn Porretta

Managing Director, Macquarie Bank; Independent member of Engineering UK Audit, Risk and Investment Committee; Board member, Croydon Churches Housing Association

You can listen to Carolyn’s story in full on podcast here or search ‘Women on Boards Success Stories’ in all major apps:

Building your Non-Executive career alongside your day job

As the first in her family to get a degree, Carolyn credits her success with focusing on how she can reach her goals, by stating what she wants and then figuring out how to get it by working things backwards and putting actions in place. Long-term she would like to semi-retire with a listed board portfolio and believes starting now is important to realise that goal. “If I move into a portfolio in 25 years times, and if I stay on each board for the full two terms of six years, that’s just four board positions away from the stage when I want to be at plc board level,” she explains. “So I need to choose each position carefully to get to where I want to be in that time.”

Earlier in her career, she admits non-executive boards were not on her radar. “I’m not being paid to say this,” she clarifies jokingly, “but Women on Boards inspired me to look at a non-executive career.” Her employer at the time, UBS, is one of our Corporate Partners and she learnt about what boards do and what the opportunities are at an in-house workshop. However, she admits she still felt she didn’t have enough to offer a board at that point, “despite what Women on Boards said!” Now she sits on two boards, she thinks she should have started earlier. For Carolyn, it was getting a job title starting with ‘Head of’ that gave her the confidence to start her journey to become a non-executive.

Being involved in a number of networks has benefitted both Carolyn’s executive and non-executive career. “I got to a certain level in my career and looked up. The levels above were all a group of men who are friends and well anchored in their roles. I realised your connections are increasingly important as you get more senior,” Carolyn explains. She decided to make the time investment in building her network. “I drank many coffees,” she laughs. She finds many people, particularly from the women’s networks, extremely helpful but explains you need to reach out in the right way. “No-one will want to help you if you haven’t helped yourself,” she says.

“You need to do your homework and show you’re serious.”

This networking has also given her a springboard into non-executive roles. Rather than just attend the event, Carolyn would always ask if they needed any volunteers to support the network. “They always said yes,” she remembers. This experience on networks’ committees not only deepened her connections but provided her with some proxy board experience when she started applying for roles on charity boards.

Learning from rejection

However, she was not immediately successful. Carolyn was rejected from around a dozen roles. “I was upset as I’d chosen charities close to my heart, and they didn’t want my help,” she confesses. She got back in contact with Women on Boards for support. Although she’d put a good deal of care into writing her CV, she found it wasn’t in the format needed to secure a non-executive role. In retrospect she also believes she was applying to charities which were too small. “My skill set of analysing large-scale financial information just wasn’t relevant to a small organisation,” she explains.

With a re-vamped Board CV, Carolyn eventually got the role on Engineering UK’s Audit, Risk and Investment Committee – helped by extremely thorough preparation. During the interview, she began to feel the doubts creeping in that she wasn’t a practising accountant. So she asked a question about a minor point in their published accounts from three years ago. “It was a slightly contentious item actually,” she says, but her question not only showed she had really done all the homework but that she could read accounts as a non-executive.

As the committee-only role wasn’t too onerous, Carolyn continued to search and joined the main board for Croydon Churches Housing Association after seeing it advertised on Women on Boards’ Vacancy Board. “Being on the full board takes so much more time,” she warns, but also highlights the benefits. “We are so diverse as a board,” she says, explaining the benefits to her in hearing genuinely fresh perspectives and being challenged.

She’s clear this is a huge benefit for her own personal development and by extension her employer. “Macquarie are generally supportive anyway,” she explains, “but people shouldn’t be shy to sell [board roles] to their employer. They are getting free training, basically!”

“I don’t think a career is ever a straight line for anyone,” she finishes reassuringly, “It’s about how you bounce back and be resilient. If you do that you’ll be much better next time and reach summits you didn’t think yourself capable of.”

We’re looking forward to seeing just how big a summit Carolyn will climb.

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