Neelu Agarwal

Non-Executive Trustee at Second Step


Getting in to the right mindset to get your first board role (on or off maternity leave)

Whilst happy working in financial services, Neelu felt she needed a little more challenge. In just six months, she has gone from contemplating a board role to getting her first role as a trustee. While Neelu’s skills and experience are undoubtedly what she was recruited for, her positive yet pragmatic attitude has been a vital element to getting her to this position so quickly.

Neelu had often been told she has a strategic mindset, yet had little opportunity to employ this in her analytical role. At the same time, she knew more strategic experience would be needed to develop into senior management level. Maternity leave proved an opportunity to reflect on this. Neelu realised joining a board of a community organisation would be a perfect way to develop her strategic skills alongside her day job, and was also excited by the prospect of learning from a different group of peers. “I did feel the pressure of ‘mummy guilt’ taking time away from my baby,” Neelu considers, “but I would return to my baby more mentally present with him, once I had done things that fulfil me. I’m a better parent for being true to myself, so I have no regrets.”

Getting support and inspiration

Neelu joined Women on Boards to help her realise these ambitions. “I listened to the Success Story podcasts all the time,” Neelu says, “and they were a game-changer. I didn’t realise how much of the strategic language and non-executive way of thinking I was picking up, until it all came out very naturally in my board interview.”

Neelu also realised that juggling a young family, busy day job and a board role would be hectic, so was determined to find an organisation she was really passionate about to contribute to as a non-executive. “When I saw the role at Second Step on the Vacancy Board, it seemed a good match for me personally,” she explains. “I have a strong interest in mental health and well-being, as it links with the inclusion initiatives I’m involved with at work.”

She sought a brief call with the CEO prior to applying. “I took our 20minute ‘chat’ just as seriously as an interview,” she says, “and it was very useful to give me a real sense of the organisation, which also allowed me to tailor my application.”

When it came to applying, Neelu followed the Women on Boards ‘Building a Board CV’ online course step-by-step. “I stuck to the guidelines and self-edited,” she says. “It is difficult to keep it to just two sides. Although it was hard to let go of some of my achievements, you need to make it focused.”

However, for the covering letter, Neelu rejected the standard templates. “I wanted to write something more personal,” she explains, “It was how I could share my own experience and passion for the cause.” Neelu also took this approach into her resulting interview.

“I was extremely well-prepared, but I also shared my personality and my fun-loving side. It’s important to be authentic as you are going to work with these people.”

An attitude which achieves success

Neelu’s pathway to arrive in the boardroom may seem fairly straight-forward, but her optimistic yet realistic mindset has been key to propelling her into her first non-executive position, at a busy time in her life.

Here are some nuggets she has for others considering doing the same:

  • Get advice, but do what is right for you. Some mentors were skeptical that I would be over-committed, especially being a maternity leave returner. But I knew how passionate I was about this. Only you know what is ultimately right for you, after all.
  • Be the inspiration you’re looking for. There aren’t many people like me as role models. I moved from Mumbai to London five years ago, have an Indian accent and am a recent mother. I could have been intimidated by all the successful women who share their board experiences, but you have to believe that you have something to offer.
  • Do your Board CV, and finish it – you need to focus on it, but it doesn’t need to take hours and hours. I followed the Women on Boards’ online course, which makes the process straight-forward. Self-editing is easier when you think about what they want to hear, not what you want to say to them.
  • Don’t worry how grand your experience is. It’s the fact that you’ve done it that counts. I’ve always been involved in many committees and staff networks, which are all relevant to non-executive work. This is not my main professional focus, but it is all important for your first board role.
  • Consider how you will balance your time and set your boundaries early on. Second Step is based in Bristol and meets very regularly. I was clear I would only be able to travel from London around three times a year, but I didn’t see why this should rule me out of this opportunity. Happily, they agreed.
  • Consider the interview preparation a test. When I was researching for the interview, I asked myself, am I enjoying it? Do I find it exciting to be learning this? It is a good indication of how I might feel if I got the position of trustee.

Neelu’s final advice is if you are interested in a board role, just go for it! “People like me who get board roles suffer from just as much self-doubt and imposter syndrome,” she admits, “but you don’t have to be the finished article to find an opportunity. I certainly wasn’t. Failure is only a comma, not a full stop!”

As well as supporting your own ambitions, don’t underestimate the impact you can have by developing as a leader. Neelu remembered this line as a source of continued motivation: “Don’t dim your light, but let your light shine in a way that others can see themselves a bit better.”

Your next steps…