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Helene Usherwood

Anderson Quigley


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How women can break into non-exec board positions

Helene Usherwood looks at how more women can break into the world of non-executive board positions, and why it is a crucial step in cognitive diversification.

To paraphrase Matthew Syed in his best seller ‘Rebel ideas: the power of diverse thinking’:

Where do the best ideas come from? How do we apply these ideas to the problems we face – at work, in education and in the biggest shared challenges of our age? Individual intelligence is no longer enough, the only way to tackle these complex problems is to harness the power of ‘cognitive diversity’…

Cognitive diversity is about taking ideas from outside your existing frames of reference and applying them to everything from everyday problem-solving to winning new business.

This is why I believe more women should be applying for non-exec roles – we intrinsically have the power to approach a problem or issue from a different perspective to our male counterparts. 

Non-execs are often appointed to challenge the direction and performance of an organisation and its existing team. Typically, a non-executive director doesn’t engage in the day-to-day management of the organisation but is involved in areas such as policymaking and strategy setting, an area a seasoned HR professional can offer real value.

Particularly for HR professionals, whose professional world can often feel siloed, non-exec opportunities can add a new dimension to your professional life – adding a new breadth of understanding and insight into organisational operations. 

While breaking into the non-exec world has its challenges, I’ve always believed it is like bringing two semi-circles together to create a whole. 

Half of the semicircle is the candidate, usually a well-prepared professional ready to provide expertise to an organisation. The other half is the organisation itself, which is looking to benefit from said expertise. The question has always been for recruiters and candidates: how do you create that bridge and bring the two parts together?

Before you start your application process, show the organisation the respect of taking the time to understand them.

Research and respect 

Organisations will often have thought about some of the characteristics and skills they may be seeking but it’s not always entirely obvious when reading the job description or advert. This means the first element of the process to enter the non-exec world will usually be research, which might sound rudimentary, but it’s the hurdle most candidates struggle to overcome.

My first tip is that before you start your application process, show the organisation the respect of taking the time to understand them. Understand what their values are, what makes them tick, and the direction the organisation is heading in. Can you make an impact?

Once you’ve got to know the organisation’s agenda, you should have an idea of precisely what they’re looking for. Now you know what they need, it’s down to you to show them you possess those qualities. 

Most candidates write a letter saying that they think they can help in XYZ way. That might sound like the best way to go about things, but it tells an organisation very little and is unlikely to help you land the role. 

What you really need to do is create a compelling narrative about how you feel you can make your contribution to their specific agenda. 

In that first contact, you need to map out your skills, values, and motivations. Explain how you are the perfect match for their organisation. That organisation wants to feel special and know that you’ve shown them the respect to research them properly. Make sure you do exactly that.

Do we have the variety of diverse perspectives necessary to deal with complex problems and create innovative solutions?

Define your value

This might be pointing out the obvious, but 2021 isn’t 1991, and that’s no less true in the boardroom. People and organisations alike are understanding that diversity strengthens an organisation at every level. 

The significant development I’ve seen in the last five years is that companies recognise that diversity isn’t always visible diversity. Invisible diversity is now finally being recognised with equal importance. What’s the difference, though?

Visible diversity refers to those differences, which can immediately be observed when looking at someone. But of course, you can’t see invisible diversity. 

Focusing on invisible differences shifts the discussion around inclusion from “How can we increase gender and racial diversity?” to “Do we have the variety of diverse perspectives necessary to deal with complex problems and create innovative solutions?”

Define your unique perspective and make it clear exactly why it will be beneficial to their organisation. What can you bring to the table that others won’t? 

Perseverance and self-belief 

When positions are advertised, there’s often a clear divide in self-belief between men and women at the application stage. 

In my experience, women will see a position which they are 80% suited for and feel put off by that extra 20%. This means they sometimes don’t push as hard for the role as they need to get noticed or end up not pushing at all. 

Quite often in the application process, it’s not just about selling yourself to the organisation; it’s about selling that organisation to yourself. 

To land that role and get your non-exec career moving, you have to keep pushing on different doors. Unfortunately, the first door is rarely the one that opens, but it does provide a vital learning experience on how to make sure the next one does. 


As a recruiter, I can wholeheartedly say that most boards are now trying to improve diversity, which means there are more opportunities than ever before for women to enter the non-exec world. 

The push for diversity can often be seen as a politically correct move, but diversity of thought has far greater impact for organisations than simply ‘box ticking’. Increasingly. there is genuine value being placed on having a more diverse team which is more likely to uncover new ideas and approaches. 

With this in mind, women should feel empowered to apply for non-exec roles and pride themselves on being able to bring to the boardroom table new, fresh perspectives.

Interested in this topic? Read Overlooked and undervalued – why ‘quiet leadership’ could be the answer to your culture problem.

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Helene Usherwood


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