Francesca Ecsery

Portfolio NED – Air France, F&C Investment Trust, Marshall Motor Holdings plc, Share PLC

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

How to break in to the boardroom

Francesca Ecsery has an enviable portfolio – cross-sector, international and listed companies – covering an intimidating range of contexts. She took Marshall Motor Holdings PLC through its IPO, which was like “being on a rocket ship” she remembers. At Air France, she sits on the board alongside non-executive trade union representatives and government officials (the state is a shareholder). This dynamic can be ‘very productive’ she says, but only when it is managed in the right way.

But Francesca’s NED career hasn’t just fallen into her lap. Her non-executive portfolio is the result of a strategic and concerted effort over a number of years. In fact, Francesca was interested in sitting on a board a good 10 years prior to getting her first role. “Strategy is part of my DNA, with my early experience at McKinsey,” she says, “but being an MD is very operationally focused. There’s only time to look at strategy once a year.” A NED role alongside her executive career seemed the perfect solution but her manager at the time ruled it out, saying it would be a ‘responsibility too far’. When it became time to change roles, Francesca ensured the ability to take a non-executive post was agreed in her contract.

Yet the offer of a NED position didn’t come in.

“It was only when I stopped working full time that I had the band-width to plan my move.”

Firstly, she needed to identify which part of her skill set would get her traction in what is a very competitive marketplace. Her background in the travel industry had given her strong strategic and customer skills but it was her digital experience that she realised was a key attribute. “The travel industry moved to multi-platform digital distribution well ahead of other sectors,” she explains. “So back in 2011 that was what really got me traction in looking for a NED role.”

Francesca has some very practical advice in honing your own elevator pitch – go to Women on Boards events. “They are a safe space, full of wonderful women with all types of backgrounds,” she explains, “if you test your elevator pitch and you get a frown or confused look, that is excellent feedback. You’re not getting your point across so go away and refine it, then come back to try again.”

She also credits writing her non-executive CV as a ‘major breakthrough’ in her search. At executive level, Francesca was known for her trail-blazing approach which delivered quick results. “The last thing a Chair wants on a board is someone who is going to start fires,” she explains. “You need to re-brand yourself. You think ‘why do I need to change at this late stage of my career?’, but you do.” She is clear, “You definitely need to spend the time to develop a good board CV.” Women on Boards run a CV Masterclass to help you just that, or there’s more help and advice in the Resource Centre.

Networking and headhunters

When it comes to finding the roles, Francesca considers the interplay between her network and headhunter connections is the key . “I had met with all the headhunters but they will only remember you for about 3 weeks,” she explains, “so you need your network to remind them about you when a role comes up.” She also suggested publishing content on LinkedIn to remind headhunters of your strengths (make sure you’ve connected with them!).

Finally, Francesca’s best advice is to ‘develop a strong nervous system’. NED roles are very competitive and you will get rejected. She says, “It’s hard, especially if you’ve had a very successful executive career where rejection doesn’t happen much. Now I still get rejections but when I see the women who did get the roles I lost out on, I am in awe.”

To avoid taking rejection personally, Francesca suggests looking at yourself as a business, pivoting your USP and applying for lots of roles. She also recommends pushing for constructive feedback. Obviously you want to maintain a good relationship with headhunters but if you’re told you’ve lost out for a reason that was self-evident from the start, do ask if there’s anything else that you can work on. It was feedback that helped her realise she needed to emphasise her transferable customer, strategic and digital skills, rather than her travel experience, to break out of the experience trap.

And when it comes to getting that first role? “Don’t be too picky,” Francesca says. She recognises her advice is at odds with others’ recommendations to choose with care. Her view is that even if it’s a difficult experience ‘you are earning your stripes’ and more importantly, learning. In short she advises, “Sit on a board. Any which one you can, as soon as you can.”

Your next steps…