Boardroom Insight: Joining a Tech Company Board

On September 2nd 2021 WiTT partnered with Women on Boards to provide our members with an opportunity to learn about opportunities to serve on boards in the tech sector. Our experienced speakers provided in-depth insights into how companies recruit for board members; what it’s like to serve on the boards of start-ups and publicly-traded corporates (and the differences between these types of boards); what executive search firms look for when recruiting non-executive directors; and how you can get on the radar of companies seeking new board members.

Rowena Ironside, Co-founder, NED and past Chair of Women on Boards and Chair of PSPA moderated the panel discussion. Our speakers were:

  • Jacqui Ferguson, Portfolio Non Exec Director, Chair & Advisor, Former CEO
  • Mary Lawrance, Founder / Director, Cariance Executive Search & Consulting
  • Cynthia Nadal, FinTech Investor, Board Member, Tech Ventures Builder & Mentor, JEDI Committee Member

A video of the event can be viewed on the WiTT YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/hnTc67rXdsA

Mary Lawrance set the scene by describing the process boards go through in the search for new NEDs; skills that companies are seeking today; and ways to improve one’s changes of securing a role

Mary believes there’s never been a better time to be a woman in tech looking for a board role. There are several reasons for this. First, the need for boardroom diversity is accepted now. It’s taken a while, but companies are now clear that need more balanced boards. Second, there’s a lot of help and support available from entities like WoB and WiTT, as well as other organisations that provide advice on how to win board roles. Third, every company needs tech savvy at the board level. There are very few sectors that aren’t tech-dependent in one way or another. Finally, boards are facing a number of large challenges right now — COVID-19, geo-political issues, Brexit — they’re very keen to get the best talent, and they cannot afford to overlook women

There are also now more women headhunters working on roles in tech, which can make a difference

Rowena asked, “How do I get started building the right relationships with headhunters?

Mary said the key steps are to build connections, and to make yourself more visible. Best way to make connections is through networking. Ask your contacts for recommendations; go online and have a look at headhunters working in the sector. Look at their consultants’ bios and connect with everyone you think will be relevant to you. Pick both the tech practice and the board practice; sometimes the tech practice will work on a relevant board role rather than the board practice.

And if you get a call from a headhunter asking if you know anyone for a role, if you can help, help. If you can’t, don’t worry. The recruiter won’t hold it against you. This is a good way to build up relationships and become known in your market.

Also make yourself easy to find. Speak, write, and network. LinkedIn is very important here. Make sure you have a good profile and are clearly labelled that you’re looking for NED roles. But if you’re in a full-time role, check with your employer first. It can be an issue for some.

Rowena about the things people don’t get right in their interviews. Mary said a key reason some people don’t get a role is lack of strategic approach in the interview. If you’ve been an operational person and you’re used to being in charge, it can be difficult to stop and listen and take the big-picture view. You can’t be a strategy consultant overnight. She has seen some quite high-profile people rejected for that reason. The CEO may think, ‘this person is going to start running my business, and that’s my job.’

The second thing is that people sometimes don’t appreciate how competitive these roles are. The normal person going for a NED role has probably done pretty well in school, at university, and in her career. Competition for a board role is a whole different world. They may not quite appreciate how tough it will be. This nearly always comes down to a lack of preparation. In some ways it’s good old-fashioned interview advice: know the company, the market, and the board. Look into the individuals and know who they are.

But sometimes It’s just not the right board; you may not get on with them. So it’s important not to get disillusioned. You don’t want to be on the wrong board. Just move on.

 

Jacqui and Cynthia described their own experiences of gaining board roles and serving on boards of different sizes and areas of focus.

Jacqui has had a career working at a high level with large IT companies such as HP and EDS, She has also worked outside the UK, in the U.S. and Singapore. She has found that there’s a lot of demand for people with tech backgrounds on boards. When she first decided to pursue these roles she sought out advice on how to develop her CV to have the right emphasis. A CV for a board role is very different from a CV for an operational role. It’s important to ask yourself: what are your transferrable skills? What skills do you have that can add value at board level? For Jacqui, these were her international work; being in volved in transformation; company strategy in the U.S.; and her work on several mergers & acquisitions. Although it’s important to talk about coming from tech, you also need to think about how your skills and experiences make you more rounded. Work in compliance, sales, or emerging markets, for example, could be quite valuable. Boards are often looking for more than one dimension. Those may be the things that tip the balance for you.

Chemistry is also really important. And if you’re not excited about a company, it can come through in the interview. Be certain that you really want to be part of a company before putting yourself forward.

And even if you’re not looking for a role yourself, always take headhunters’ calls and pass along names and recommendations if you can.

One point about tech boards: in the UK there are actually not that many publicly-traded firms that are technology companies. There are only two in FTSE 100, and only a few more in the FTSE 250. There are more on AIM, and there’s a lot going on in the start-up space.

 

Cynthia spent 11+ years as an operator at fintech unicorn Markit (now IHS Markit), joining when a 12-person office in New York and staying with the firm all the way to an IPO on the NASDAQ (INFO) in 2014 and then a merger in 2016. She then began to invest in start-ups as an angel; and mentored them through TechStars. She was the managing director of the Founders Factory accelerator, and is now a VC (venture capital) investor.

Cynthis is current on four boards: she’s an NED for three start-ups; a board observer for another; and on the board of JEDI (Joint European Disruptive Initiative), which is something like DARPA (the Défense Research Advanced Projects Agency) in the U.S. She also mentors with King’s College, Imperial, and Stanford.

For those who are interested in joining a start-up board Cynthia advises to go where the start-ups are. Go to accelerators like TechStars; do a few days of mentoring. Approach those you have a good feeling about. Talk to your university: many have accelerators or programmes to help start-ups. Or connect with a university close to you. Mentoring is a good way to meet start-ups and to meet other mentors, who could be good sources of references for board roles.

Note that early-stage founders don’t generally post their board roles; they can’t afford a recruiter, so they’ll rely on their networks for suggestions for board NEDs.

Also be active in the investor scene: talk to investors about their investees. You don’t have to be an investor yourself, but if you know investors or VCs, they may be looking for people to come and help their start-ups. If they know you have a skill set they may call.

Investing is another path. But Cynthia says that you shouldn’t invest in a start-up unless you know what you’re doing. Perhaps join a network like Angel Academe, which invests in female-founded tech start-ups and introduces women to angel investing.

Some of the audience questions they addressed included:

  • Where boards recognise they need the best talent, to what extent do they frame this narrowly in terms of tech/sector expertise, or invite cognitive diversity from candidates who input from broader experience?
  • How do you define the Tech sector? My background is in Physics, scientific instruments and Intellectual Property before working in science & innovation policy in the public sector; would this be considered the Tech sector?
  • What are the biggest challenges you have faced when you have transitioned from an executive role to an NED role?
  • What skillsets are start-ups typically looking for from mentors & NEDs. And for the others, how does that change as the company grows?
  • What is the best way to deal with difficult conversations or aggressive personalities on a Board?
  • In your preparation for an interview, think hard about what type of questions you might be asked and prepare your answers in detail.  For example I was recently asked about conflicts that I had seen on the boards I had been on and how I had dealt with these.  What other tricky questions has the panel experienced at interview?
  • How/when can you start monetising the start-up/scale-up advising and mentoring, without being formally invited onto a board in a paid role?
  • As someone who already sits on a number of advisory boards and ALBs, any suggestions on how to transition to  a commercial board?  Often people are very keen, but reluctant to take the risk on someone who hasn’t clearly done the role before?  That is to say: any suggestions on how to close?

WiTT thanks our fantastic speakers and moderator for a stimulating discussion!


Our Speakers

Rowena Ironside, Co-founder, NED and past Chair of Women on Boards and Chair of PSPA

Rowena is a founding director of Women on Boards in the UK. She spent 25 years as an executive in the ICT sector, starting out writing software in Australia; building an IT services business in London; and running international services businesses in the software and hosting industries. Rowena has been a non-executive member of boards in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors since 2006. She was executive Chair of Women on Boards in the UK from its launch in 2012 until October 2020 and currently also sits on the boards of the Digital Catapult and the Steering Committee of The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute.

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Jacqui Ferguson, Portfolio Non Exec Director, Chair & Advisor, Former CEO

Jacqui Ferguson is an experienced portfolio chair/non-executive Director in multiple industries and a former CEO from the technology industry. She has extensive global experience including living and working in Silicon Valley.

Jacqui is Chair Remco/NED at Wood PLC (FTSE 250 global engineering services), NED at Tesco Bank (retail banking and insurance subsidiary of FTSE 100 Tesco Plc) and Croda PLC (FTSE 100 speciality ingredients). Jacqui is Deputy Chair of Engineering UK, a not-for-profit focussed on inspiring young people from all kinds of backgrounds into Engineering and Technology careers. Jacqui is also a business advisor to Engie UK (global energy and services). In 2018 she won the Sunday Times NED to watch award in honour of Dame Helen Alexander.

She is founding member of the Scottish First Ministers Advisory Board for Women and Girls aimed at improving Gender Equality, a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology and an inaugural mentor in the Scottish Women’s Mentoring scheme.

Jacqui formerly chaired the public services strategy board for the Confederation of Business and Industry and was a board member of the Tech Partnership, the UK industry body aimed at improving UK technology skills.
Jacqui is passionate about what technology can enable, getting young people from all backgrounds interested in STEM, advancing more women into executive careers and progressing gender equality.

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Mary Lawrance, Founder / Director, Cariance Executive Search & Consulting

Mary started her career as VP Marketing for Silicon Valley based ATI where she focused on laser technology and networking. This was followed by progression in marketing management (semiconductors, consumer electronics and distribution) within Philips Electronics in Europe. She then gained consulting experience with PA Consulting Group in London.

Moving into executive search, Mary joined the Technology and Professional Services Practice of Heidrick and Struggles, where she was responsible for their largest UK client. Her next role was Global Head of Technology for the Paris based Alexander Hughes Group where she created a technology practice from scratch and then led it across 31 countries. Prior to founding Cariance, Mary was International Head of Technology and Professional Services for Penna Plc.

A Graduate of London University, Mary studied Economics, Psychology and Statistics at The London School of Economics. She was one of a small number of senior head-hunters chosen by the Government to contribute to the Davies Review into Women on Boards.

With exposure to most segments of the technology sector, Mary has specific expertise in emerging technologies/science & innovation, security, space, and healthcare. She has also worked in the energy and transport sectors, as well as on high profile Government PPP projects and privatisations.

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Cynthia Nadal, FinTech Investor, Board Member, Tech Ventures Builder & Mentor, JEDI Committee Member

Cynthia Nadal is a 15+ years tech veteran who has mostly been based in NY and London, but has also worked in Germany, Netherlands, India and France. She has spent 11+ years as an operator at fintech unicorn Markit (now IHS Markit) where she learned the good, the bad and the ugly of product development, growth and corporate innovation from a 12 people office in NY all the way to IPO on the NASDAQ (INFO) in 2014 and then the merger with IHS in 2016 – They are now worth $30bn+ and have announced a merger with S&P.

In 2016, Cynthia started being more active on the early stage tech scene as a mentor and angel, before being hired at King’s College as Investor-in-Residence and then joining Founders Factory as Managing Director – Head of FinTech, in charge on Fintech investments in the studio and the accelerator. Cynthia has had exposure to different sectors including FinTech, InsurTech, EdTech, HealthTech, LegalTech, SpaceTech, CyberTech.

As a strong ecosystem contributor, closely working with tech startups, Cynthia has been a mentor for Techstars, Imperial College London, King’s College’s Accelerator, and Village Capital and she currently sits on 3 different boards as a Non-Executive Director and active board member.

Cynthia has been a strong advocate for female founders: mentoring female entrepreneurs at VC Office Hours, being on the screening committee of Angel Academe, advising different networks in that space, as well as supporting professional women becoming business angels in tech. In 2018, she was nominated for “best female angel led investment” by the UK ABB and made the top 20 UK female angels list in 2020.

Her passion for the Tech European ecosystem does not stop with startups, Cynthia was invited in 2018 to join the board of JEDI – the European Moonshot Factory (modeled on DARPA), and she has been part of several European delegations representing European Innovation in the US.
Cynthia holds a Master of Science in Finance, a MBA and is also a Stanford alumna.