Q&A: Helping women into non-executive directorships

Helene Usherwood, partner at recruitment firm Anderson Quigley, answers questions on how recruiters can help women break into the non-executive world.

How would you describe your job?

It can be difficult for those outside the industry to understand exactly what I do. However, as time goes on, I see my role as one of both facilitator and critical friend.

I work with key organisations across the public sector to help them source and find candidates to fill senior positions on boards.

I help assess their skills as well as their values and organisational fit. For candidates, I support and help facilitate individuals in making the best application that they can. As that process continues, I coach and support them through the recruitment process, giving feedback to help shape their candidate proposition.

As the critical friend, I question organisations and individuals on their motives and experience to ensure they find the right thing for them. Ironically, that questioning approach is very similar to the role of a non-executive director (NED).

The role of HR in NED roles:

Can HR truly add value as a non-executive?

Why more HR directors are taking on NED roles

Has coronavirus sparked a new era of leadership?


Why are more women needed in non-executive roles? 

We are all very aware of the research and insights available in the public domain which have highlighted the need for diversity on boards.

The inclusion of women on boards has particularly been cited for broadening perspectives and improving culture. I have also seen that when boards create greater gender balance, they are more open to change and less risk-seeking.

Given the level of change that we are seeing in the public sector, this can only be advantageous for organisations to have non-executives who embrace transformation but are seeking to reduce the risks associated with it.

Women represent 50.9% of the UK population and without diverse female voices in non-exec roles, companies are missing out on the perspective of more than half of the population.  

It also strikes me that when you see more women around the boardroom table, as a director or non-executive director, it can be really inspiring to employees by offering a clear role model. This leads to improved performance and ambition throughout. And if we are to truly change things, young women must be supported and encouraged to ensure a future talent pipeline.

While more women are needed in non-executive roles, concentrating on only one form of diversity isn’t enough. Social diversity, neurodiversity and professional diversity are all essential for increasing the diversity of perspectives represented on the board.


How can recruiters help women to break the glass ceiling? 

It’s about reinforcing the belief that companies, not just boardrooms, are better when they have a more diverse range of perspectives contributing to their leadership.

It’s about telling prospective non-execs that you don’t need to be the 'perfect fit' to be able to make a meaningful contribution.

Quite often public sector boards are eager to bring in individuals from the commercial sector to share points of difference, alternative perspectives, and different ways of doing things. 

It’s about marrying the skills, experiences, values and behaviours of the individual with that of the organisation. Both are two sides of a circle, and it’s about me helping to piece them together to make a perfect whole.


What advice would you give to women interested in NED roles?

I would recommend any woman thinking about a NED role to take the next step and explore things further.

Talk to recruiters, review the numerous job boards and speak to your friends. The more people who know of your intention, the greater the chance that you will hear about opportunities.

I believe it’s crucial that we continue to build and bring fresh talent and expertise to the boardroom. Is this an easy route? Possibly not and there will be times when you will have to persevere and demonstrate your powers of resilience – but in all my years, I have never heard anyone say it wasn’t worth it.