Helen Gillett

NED at Orbit Group (housing association) and former Managing Director of Affinity for Business.

Getting off to a flying start as a Non-Executive

“I wish I’d done it sooner,” is a common reflection we hear at Women on Boards from women in their first board role. Helen Gillett is one of them. “I’d really encourage everyone to operate in an advisory capacity, such as a non-executive directorship, as early in their career as possible,” she says.

Helen is now a non-executive director of the housing association Orbit, where she also sits on the Remuneration and Governance committee and the Customer and Community sub-group.

Whilst no-one can make up for lost time, giving some thought to how to operate effectively as a NED can shorten the learning curve once you do enter the boardroom. Reflecting on her first 18months, Helen shares some lessons on moving successfully into a non-executive role, whichever stage of your career you are at:

Do your research for the interview.

Although this is hardly unusual advice, it is seldom followed. “It’s amazing how few people actually do this,” Helen considers. “A lot of candidates arrive ready to talk about themselves, whereas I could also reference Orbit’s website, what their customers were saying on social media and their latest reports. It not only shows you are committed, but proves you can get your head around a new organisation or sector.”

Helen’s approach clearly made an impact. The board Chair at Orbit called her less than two hours after her interview to offer her the role.

Tune into the culture and how the board operates.

“I was lucky that the CEO was very frank and asked that I get in touch informally, rather than bringing in any surprises to a board meeting,” Helen explains.

Of course, this approach may differ between organisations and Helen is quick to point out you should not seek to fit in to the extent your concerns aren’t listened to. “Don’t allow yourself to be fobbed off,” she cautions, “but it’s about understanding where the conversations are happening.”

Be aware of your seniority and the weight of your suggestions.

Despite having been a CEO, Helen was still struck by the degree of appreciation or even deference she received when attending organisational events as a non-executive.

“Every time you make a bright eyed suggestion as a NED, it can generate a huge amount of work, that – frankly – you are not going to have to do yourself,” Helen says, reflecting that the delivery sits with the executive team. “Of course, you should offer suggestions, but you need to weigh if the work involved is worthwhile and valuable.”

Mix your contributions drawing on your experiences and the latest research.

“I find it useful to offer insights framed with specific examples from my day job,” Helen explains. “Both what we did, and what we learnt when facing a similar challenge. It’s easy to feel like you should only share your successes, but actually it can be really valuable to share what hasn’t worked for you in the past and what you learnt from it also.”

She also finds being abreast of the latest research brings additional value to the boardroom. “For example in discussions on diversity, I’ve been able to cite the McKinsey research on the business case for diversity,” she says, “which has helped progress the conversation in an evidence-based way.”

Be comfortable not contributing on every topic.

Helen considers herself lucky in how well- Chaired the board is. “Our Chair is very inclusive and ensures everyone is heard,” she says, but admits to initially feeling conscious that she was not contributing significantly to the finance conversations. She explains, “I could understand the P&L and cashflow from my executive experience, but the housing sector funding mechanisms weren’t something I had any depth of knowledge on.”

Helen raised this at her annual appraisal and was a little surprised by the Chair’s response. “The feedback was simply: ‘We have other board members who bring that expertise – I don’t need it from you’. It’s allowed me to feel comfortable with my contribution on what I do know about – commerciality, customer focus, leadership and People,” Helen smiles.

Helen also reflects the experience of many Women on Boards members (both new NEDs and Chairs) in that she considers it’s taken her “around a year to fully settle into the role.” Yet, Helen also mentions specific improvements around agile working practices and customer communications which she has instigated in that time. Clearly, with a conscious strategy around your approach as a NED, you don’t need to wait to feel ‘settled in’ to make an impact.

Your next steps…