Celia Pronto

Non-Executive Director at South East Water, Trustee at cancer charity ‘Yes to Life’ and Chief Customer and Digital Officer at Casual Dining Group


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

Balancing an executive career with NED roles

It was actually her previous executive role which sparked Celia’s interest in becoming a non-executive director. As the first woman on the board of Ford Retail, where she sat as an executive, she saw how the non-executive directors operated and thought ‘I could do that’.

Rather than being daunted by taking on a dual commitment, Celia considers that you can always find time for things you are passionate about. She also thrives on variety, change and constant learning curves – something a NED role alongside her ‘day job’ as Chief Customer and Digital Officer at the Casual Dining Group would certainly ensure!

Her first role in a non-executive capacity actually came about through some pro bono support around marketing strategy she had been providing to cancer charity ‘Yes to Life’. When she mentioned she was considering a trustee role, they asked her to apply for an upcoming vacancy. Going through the formal recruitment process was a useful exercise, although she admits having the established connection with the organisation did help considerably.

This prior knowledge of the charity also made it the ideal board to make the shift into a non-executive role. She focused on the wider aspects of the organisation, beyond her digital and marketing brief, and has become one of the most vocal board members when it comes to the P&L, for example. This board is also where she refined her technique around asking questions as a non-executive. Celia considers it not only relates to what you ask, and having the confidence to ask the ‘stupid’ questions. More important, Celia thinks, is the tone you use when asking.

“Your questions should come from a place of genuine curiosity,” she says. “The tone you use affects the way they are taken and the quality of answers you get.”

Moving into corporate boards

However, Celia’s experience as a trustee did not qualify her as an ‘experienced board member’ in the eyes of recruiters for company boards, which were her next target. Celia estimates she spent around three years searching for her ‘first’ NED role and experienced several rejections – something her membership of Women on Boards had prepared her for. In fact, she was the second choice candidate for the position she now holds at South East Water. She describes being asked to take the role after the first choice candidate had pulled out as ‘”another learning but ultimately really exciting”.

Celia considers her focus and efforts on networking were essential in getting her ‘known’ as a potential non-executive candidate.

“Unlike looking for a new executive role which is often done in secrecy, you should tell absolutely everyone that you are looking for a non-executive director position. You never know where that connection is going to come from.”

Celia’s top tip for board success

Ostensibly her executive role at Casual Dining Group has little in common with a large utility company, which is run according to the FTSE board cycle and is highly regulated.  Indeed, Celia’s appointment had to be approved via an interview with water regulator, OFWAT.

“The piece that really excited me about South East Water is how they really wanted to embrace customer centricity and to change what it mean to be a water supplier,” Celia explains, drawing out the underlying synergies and their need for her digital and customer engagement skills.

Nonetheless, the balance between the two roles remains a challenge. Celia advises that having the backing of your employer for your NED role is essential to successfully balancing them. Not least, as you are likely to need to offer them as a referee.

Celia recounts an instance of a diary clash which required flexibility from both her board and her employer. “Board meetings are usually in my diary 18 months in advance, with my executive commitments working around those. There was an occasion where our corporate away day clashed with a board meeting, which was difficult to manage.” In the end, she negotiated with her board Chair that she would dial into the board meeting remotely from the away day. Her employer agreed to juggle the agenda to enable her to take time out to engage in her NED role.

Celia is now seeking an additional non-executive role, to build on the foundations she has built so far. 

2020 update: Celia has joined the board of Moto Service Stations

Celia’s top tips for anyone looking to add a NED role or two on top of an executive career:

  • Develop a board CV – which is very different to your executive CV. Take time to refine your pitch and understand what you can bring to a board.
  • Make sure your board role is for an organisation you care about to give you the motivation and drive.
  • Ruthlessly prioritise your time and focus.
  • Don’t be afraid – anyone can do it!

Your next steps…