NED at Manx Care; Independent Adviser to the Welsh National Assembly; Trustee, Bristol Students’ Union; and MD at PinchPoint Communications.
What a communications background brings to the boardroom
“You need to be an accountant to join a board” is a perception that persists in many quarters. Legal, finance or other ‘technical’ skills are seen as more in-demand for non-executives, yet if this were true, Sarah Pinch would not be enjoying the success of her developing NED portfolio.
Sarah’s career started as a BBC journalist and then moved into corporate communications in the charity sector, transportation and the NHS, before setting up her own consultancy. Having been involved in a range of charity boards, she was National President of the CIPR and spent five years on the board of the Health and Safety Executive.
“You have to be able to hold your own when it comes to finances and audit,” Sarah recognises. “And I can interrogate the figures, but my focus is on people and I make no apology for that.”
Sarah is clear on the importance of bringing that perspective in governance, but also admits that it hasn’t always been easy to be that ‘diverse’ voice.
She was somewhat of an outlier on the Health & Safety Executive board, in particular, as the only board member who wasn’t from a technical or engineering background. Although the board was gender balanced, when she was appointed (whilst 8 months pregnant), she was the only one balancing her board role with the demands of a young family and a full-time job.
“It felt quite brave to say I didn’t understand some of the technical explanations in board meetings, but actually, it often uncovered some mistaken assumptions from the other board members and led to useful discussions.”
Her different focus went far beyond this in the value it offered, though. Sarah gives an example of the board’s involvement with a serious industrial accident and the on-going efforts to recover the bodies of the three men who had tragically died. Sarah recounts, “The other board members were asking technical questions about the rescue operation. But what I wanted to know was how the teams working on it were coping, and if the bereaved families were being kept informed. I was worried I’d be criticised for being over-emotional afterwards, but I was actually thanked by the Executives for raising these issues.”
In fact, Sarah’s perspective was described as being ‘the conscience of the board’ by one member. She considers this a nice acknowledgement, as her input did not always make her popular in the short term. One small example being when she raised the reputational risk of public sector funds paying for the board member’s wine over dinner.
Making the case for a board role
However, it’s one thing to offer value when you are in the boardroom, but quite another to articulate the value a communications background will bring during the board recruitment process.
“Many of us women tend to think our work will speak for itself – it won’t and it doesn’t,” Sarah is clear, “You need to tell as many people as possible what your aims are, and tell them why you’d be right for a certain role.”
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) was specifically looking for a non-executive who understood reputation and engagement when Sarah joined. She also brought a deep understanding of the importance of health and safety from her time in transport. However, this didn’t mean it was an easy appointment. “I researched the life out of them,” Sarah remembers. She had also been proactively targeting a public appointment for some time. “I was probably on the Cabinet Office staff’s ‘keen/annoying’ list for a while, as I would email them regularly,” she admits. “It was valuable to me to get a sense of if it was worth me going for a particular role or what was coming up.”
At times, getting a non-executive role can be about considering your experience laterally. This can mean your communications experience may not be front and centre of your ‘pitch’ for the role.
“For Manx Care, all five non-executives have been recruited on the same role description. That includes me and a tax expert, but what we have in common is experience of driving forward change programmes effectively, which is the over-arching aim of the newly created organisation.”
However, it remains true that some boards are simply not willing to appointment someone outside the ‘usual suspects’. Sarah had what she described as a ‘rather wounding’ experience in missing out on a role at a late stage. “You have to put in so much work to get to interview and it was so frustrating as the feedback was that my interview went ‘perfectly’.” Instead, that post went to someone extremely well-connected.
“I’ve no doubt that individual will do a great job,” Sarah says, “but I question whether they will bring anything different to those already on the board. I strongly believe that we need a range of perspectives and backgrounds coming through.”
Leading for diversity
Sarah is intentional in championing diversity, not only through her work with the Taylor Bennet Foundation, which supports people from BAME communities into communications professions, but also by her example as a leader.
“I never used to mention my personal life in a professional context as I didn’t see it as relevant,“ Sarah explains, “but a young woman came up to me after a talk to ask how I decided to choose a career over having children. She was so shocked when I said I did have a child, I realised I needed to be more open about being a mother.”
And there’s a lot of support and appreciation for it. In fact, it was a fellow board member, Susan Johnson the first female Chief Firefighter, who encouraged me to choose attending my child’s nativity play over a board meeting. “When I insisted that was minuted as the reason, I had a number of executives, male and female, thank me for it afterwards. It made them feel they could make similar choices, ” Sarah remembers.
Diverse leadership in action. And absolutely proof that you can both get the roles and add value to a board as a communications professional.
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