Non-Executive Director at Thomas Telford Ltd and IDM (Institute of Data and Marketing)
When you’re searching for that first NED role … And two come along at once!
When Lara Martini decided to start looking for her first non-executive role, she didn’t envisage getting two in quick succession. But she says she couldn’t turn down the opportunities. “They are both so different and exciting – though there are also a few similarities between the two. Both are learning organisations, and both are seeing fast changes in their industry, enabled by technology – which is where my expertise can come handy.”
Thomas Telford Ltd is the knowledge business of civil engineers. The Institute of Data and Marketing is a social enterprise focused on raising professional standards in digital and data-driven marketing.
Lara first became interested in becoming a non-executive through her executive work, by advising other companies, such as Microsoft partners and customers. “I found I really enjoyed those conversations, and to see those companies evolve in time.” she says “Although I was sharing my perspective with them, learning always goes both ways, and I found it incredibly interesting.”
Seeing friends at later stages in their careers also gave her a valuable insight into the non-executive world. “I found out about what is involved, and the responsibilities of NEDs. And realized that it is not easy to get a NED role, regardless of one’s success as an executive. I thought I had better get started now.” Lara wants to build experience, and explore whether a portfolio career could be something for her in the long term, while developing new skills and exposure to different industries.
Searching for a role
Once the decision was made, Lara took a concerted approach to finding a role. With a long track-record at Microsoft, Lara had not applied for a job in years. She drafted a board CV and called on her personal network for feedback. “It was a bit difficult as I got very different opinions on where to start and what I should write” she admits “I ended up building different versions to test out.” She also worked with a personal coach to pinpoint the value she could bring to a board, focusing on customer focus, market strategy, indirect sales and partnership expertise and international experience.
Lara also set some criteria for which boards to target. “I didn’t want to go for a public sector board,” she says, “I feel you’d need more UK-specific experience and, never having worked in that sector, there’s a significant extra learning curve. I focused on industries being disrupted by technology, as I can bring a lot to that conversation. And I wanted a role in London, to optimize my time. I also withdrew from some selection processes when it became clear the organisations wanted some very hands-on support from their NED, for example for fundraising – I wanted to be very realistic about my availability and not over-commit.”
Well prepared, Lara embarked on what could be described as a ‘high volume’ strategy to her applications, aiming to send at least one application each week. “I expected I would get a lot of rejections” she explains “as I’m not on the non-executive career ladder and getting that first step is always hardest. I thought of it like going to the gym, don’t expect to see the results immediately!” she laughs.
Interviews for NED roles represented a double challenge for Lara. As a first-time NED, she had never interviewed for a board role before. And neither had she ever interviewed in the UK before – her management is in the US. That is when she called on Women on Boards’ 1-on-1 pre-interview connection for support.
“I was very impressed with the speedy response,” she says, “which meant I was able to have a call within the tight timeframe before my first interview. The conversation really helped me build confidence and know what to expect.”
Her advice to other women starting out is to find their core offer, to be able to describe themselves in a few words, prepare questions well, and stay curious and confident. For those with an executive role, she advises you make sure your employer is aware, check there are no conflicts of interest and plan your time, so that if things turn out well, you’re ready to go.
Lara approached the interviews as a chance to really find out about different businesses, and spent most of the time asking them questions and discussing their strategy and needs, rather than her own experience. It clearly worked – she is a now a non-executive director, twice over.