Non-Executive Director for Alliance Homes Group, Vice Chair of Calibre Audio and Trustee at Electrical Safety First as well as their joint venture, Certsure.
Adopting a learning approach to your board career
When you read Sarah Frost’s impressive board CV, you could easily conclude that her journey to date had a clearly defined strategy, and that being on a board was part of her DNA. But that’s not how she would characterise it herself.
Sarah has just over 30 years’ experience of working at financial institutions like Coutts, NatWest, RBS, with 17 years heading up huge workstreams within cross-divisional programmes specialising in digital and ICT transformation, but she is the first to admit that building her board portfolio hasn’t always been an easy path.
Although she was invited to join her first board in 2002, it wasn’t until 2017 that she intentionally set her sights on building her non-executive portfolio.
“I had an idea that I wanted to be on a board, but initially I didn’t really have a plan.”
She was approached to by Chartered Institute of Linguists for her first NED role, which she accepted despite balancing caring responsibilities for her mother and a very busy executive role.
From that first experience she learnt what it meant to be on a board – what the governance was and how to work with fellow board members. The learning also went both ways, in terms of value-add in the boardroom and in the workplace – despite her employer’s initial
resistance to it!
If there’s one thing that really stands out as a key to Sarah’s success in her board journey, it’s her ongoing commitment to adopting a learning and growth approach.
When she started applying for roles in earnest in 2017, she says she now feels ‘embarrassed’ at how far her applications were from what the companies needed. She learned her first valuable lesson at a Women on Boards’ ‘Get on Board’ workshop: how to focus and evidence the required skills to get the role. It was then, she says, that her plan began to ‘evolve’.
Sarah’s had her share of rejection but takes an analytical view, building her learning from those applications to strengthen her next one. ‘It often comes down to the finest of margins between you and someone else,’ she says. ‘Ultimately you have to accept that failure hurts, but you need to build resilience in the sense that there are a lot of people with similar skills out there. You learn to refine how can you make yourself stand out.’
In addition to spending a lot of time thinking about what your board skills are and how you’re going to evidence them, she also suggests having a strategy for bouncing back and building networks wherever you can to help build resilience.
Of course, getting a non-executive role is simply the start of another learning process, not just in terms of the organisation you are on the
board of, but also about yourself as a NED. Sarah has discovered that in addition to the skills she brings, she’s gained others. She even uncovered some related skills, such as risk management, that she wouldn’t have consciously articulated previously.
Sarah added to her knowledge of the governance and finance side through doing the Financial Times NED diploma course. However, she’s also a big advocate for learning through doing and volunteered to sit on various projects and committees, as a way of building expertise and learning.
What truly drives Sarah is the desire ‘to make a tangible difference’. Serving on a medium-sized housing association board now gives her the opportunity to serve in an area that resonates with her interests in addressing homelessness issues and being able to shift the direction of the service. ‘I know the decisions we’re making at board level affect lives. I’m still learning because we cover so much on the Alliance Housing board, and there’s still more to learn. It’s really rewarding seeing how the housing association ticks and understanding all its moving parts.’