Is the time right to reform the auditors?

The world’s largest audit companies are the external auditors for the majority of higher education providers in the UK. Governing bodies rely upon their work but is this reliance justified? Our governance editor David Williams says a new, hard-hitting book, Bean Counters: the triumph of the accountants and how they broke capitalism, argues it may not be.

A former tax inspector, who writes for Private Eye magazine, Richard Brooks traces the roots of auditing back to the nineteenth century and the fraudulent practices associated with the development of the railways. The auditor was an independent and trusted agent exposing cases of fraud and false accounting. Their independence and actions checked the excesses of capitalism. The roots of today’s Big Four accountancy firms can be traced back to the early audit companies.

In a tough assessment of their power and influence, Brooks offers multiple examples where the auditors failed in their primary task of finding or exposing false accounting.

Brooks believes the independence and actions of the large audit companies no longer align with those of their predecessors. He says today’s auditors are compromised by conflicts of interests. An audit offers the opportunity to sell a client non-audit services (eg. tax advice, management consultancy) and boost their fees. The latter, rather than the former, is their primary objective.

He notes that when auditing financial statements, too often auditors fail to challenge management. False accounting is either not identified, or only identified at a late date by the auditor. If junior members of an audit team raise concerns about an organisation’s business practices, they are often over-ruled by their seniors. He says that too often organisations ‘fall over’ shortly after gaining a clean audit opinion. Regulators are in most cases ineffective, current or past senior members of the Big Four often serving on their governing bodies.

Brooks sees the process as circular, with the influence and lobbying of the auditors limiting reform and allowing existing business practices to continue. He suggests “…most accountancy failings are less about dishonesty and more of tales of insufficient courage, curiosity and independence of thought in the face of huge commercial incentives.”

The collapse of Carillion, including the application of accounting standards which were signed-off by the auditors, suggests criticism about the rules and their application (see, for example, the Financial Times, 18 June 2018) has substance. Further, the recent parliamentary select committee’s report into Carillion’s collapse laments the weakness in the checks and balances on the company shown by three regulators. Criticisms of one, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), as “chronically passive” and “timid” and requiring cultural change, are requoted in the call for evidence as part of the current review of the FRC.

Cynics might suggest the FRC’s recent findings that the audit quality of the ‘Big Four’ has declined, comes late in the day. The FRC finds a significant number of audits require improvement, not least in the challenge to management and the exercise of professional scepticism. Is the same true of audits in higher education?

What needs to change then – the rules, the auditors or the regulators? Brooks believes the system of setting accounting standards (the rules), the functioning of the auditors and their regulation (the checks) are fundamentally broken. Tinkering will not result in an effective system of audit. The Big Four should be broken-up and their accounting and consultancy services separated – a fundamental flaw is that the auditee pays the auditor. For this to be addressed, auditing should become a public regulatory function funded by taxation/levies. Auditing should be conducted in the public and not the private interest. To create an effective multi-level approach, independent regulation is also required.

How far might some of the issues about audit influence the current revision of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) handbook for HEI audit committees? Equally, in future, will the competent authority for audit (the FRC) expect more of auditors? Will the regulatory bodies for higher education in the different nations of the UK, require enhanced assurance from the auditors?

Future standards and regulation do not detract from the current need for all institutions to have an effective audit committee. Effectiveness includes ensuring that the external auditors are indeed challenging management, testing key assumptions behind financial forecasts and exercising appropriate professional scepticism.

Auditors are a vital part of the governance system and any suggestion that their work is not effective has to be taken seriously.

Further information for governors about audit can be found via this linkDavid Williams edits Advance HE’s governance pages.

Dates for our governor development programme 2018/19 are now available

Portal to a more diverse future?

Photo montage of diverse faces

Higher education is waking up to the reality that diversifying governing boards will be imperative to the future success of universities. Ahead of the launch of the Board Vacancies portal, Jenny Tester, Project Associate for the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation discusses the diversity case for increasing the transparency of university board vacancies.

The Parker Review and the Davies Report have shone light on the lack of BME and female representation on boards in FTSE 100 companies. These reports, and the narrative surrounding them, challenge businesses, executive search firms and industries to take action to improve board diversity without the use of enforced quotas.

At a time when the cultural climate is one of action against discrimination, with high profile topics such as the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement dominating the headlines, the opportunity for advancing diversity is unparalleled. In higher education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has set a target of 40% female representation on boards by 2020. Last month Scottish legislation was passed requiring public boards, which includes universities, to comprise 50% women by 2020.

According to the report Women Count (Jarboe, 2016) women make up 36% of boards and 19% of Chairs (up from 32% and 12% respectively). In order to meet Hefce’s target on gender alone, the pace of female appointments to board positions needs to increase significantly over the next year. Although much of the current focus on diversifying boards has centred on increasing BME and female representation, the case for diversity should be viewed through a much broader lens.

Diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences strengthens the effectiveness of governing boards, combating unconscious bias and groupthink, enabling governors to interrogate the HEI with the benefit of a breadth of knowledge and experience, and inspiring a future generation from diverse backgrounds to get involved. Ahead of the Leadership Foundation’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat, Simon Fanshawe explored how diversity can be advanced through cultural considerations in this recent blog post.

Universities are being urged to reform widening participation – increasing student representation from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and geographical regions. As the focus shifts to put the student at the centre of higher education, with tax-payer and student return-on-investment central to the debate, pressure will grow for governing bodies to mirror the diversity of the student body and communities they serve.

The challenge

Despite goodwill in higher education, and a recognition of the need for change, the reality of recruitment practices for board appointments often results in the appointment of ‘the usual suspects’, typically from a narrow demographic. A recent survey conducted by AHUA and the Leadership Foundation found over 50% of board vacancies are not publicly advertised, relying on the networks of the Chair and board members to identify suitable candidates. Although this can be an effective way of securing strong candidates who would have otherwise not considered a university board appointment, it does narrow the pool of candidates to those in the board’s immediate network and risks marginalising those beyond.

Potential candidates who have not built networks in higher education therefore lack the necessary visibility and are less likely to be made aware of opportunities. Couple this with the tendency to hire in the image of self, when only 19% of Chairs are female, and the result is a hiring norm which perpetuates rather than tackles inequality. Where vacancies are advertised, their placements range from newspapers which target a certain readership to higher education recruitment pages which lack the visibility to candidates outside the higher education sector. Higher education now needs to make tangible changes to achieve board diversity. As board recruitment processes can last months, in order to meet Hefce’s target we need to take action now or female representation will fall short by 2020.

Possible solutions

In order to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, there needs to be an increase in the transparency and accessibility of vacancies. For those considering a board level appointment in higher education, a central hub to locate vacancies will serve to increase the transparency of board appointment processes and send a message of inclusivity and accessibility to candidates from diverse backgrounds.

As part of a broader project aimed at diversifying boards in higher education, the Leadership Foundation, in collaboration with the Committee of University Chairs, is piloting a board vacancies portal aimed at providing a central repository of board vacancies across the sector. Not only will the portal provide a central space for those considering board appointments in higher education to locate vacancies, it will also draw new talent to the sector through a series of partnerships with networks and organisations seeking to support diversity. The portal is currently being trialled with a select number of opportunities, with a view to launching sector-wide in September 2018.

The portal is only one strand of the Board Diversification Project, funded by Hefce, Hefcw and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, which includes practical, related initiatives to support greater diversity within higher education boards and those applying for board roles, whether in higher education or outside the sector.

Other strands include:

– Developing a Board Appointment Diversity Framework in partnership with the leading search firms in the sector. This follows from recommendations from the Leadership Foundation report ‘Increasing the diversity of senior leaders in higher education: the role of executive search firms’ authored by Professor Simonetta Manfredi in March 2017.

– Piloting two board readiness workshops following feedback from our Women Onto Boards alumni development survey showing 75% of respondents would be interested in further support in order to develop the right profile and skills.

– Conducting a scoping study to assess the feasibility, effectiveness and practicalities of developing a Board Apprenticeship Scheme in the higher education sector providing aspiring board members with a risk-free environment to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to pursue a board appointment.

The sector has significant opportunity, during times of upheaval and uncertainty, to make tangible changes to the diversity of its governing boards, and in so doing strengthening the quality of its governance for the future.

Jenny Tester is a project associate managing the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The project aims to increase gender and BME diversity on university boards through practical, related initiatives. Jenny was previously a senior consultant at an executive search firm, leading senior appointments in higher education.

How to keep an eye on the truth

Picture: The Three Wise Monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim which in the West is often used to describe those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Picture: The Three Wise Monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim which in the West is often used to describe those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Recent news stories such as the #MeToo campaign to end sexual harassment in the workplace have highlighted the prevalence of institutional ‘wilful blindness’. This is when people choose to ignore when something negative is happening – even when it is common knowledge. Ahead of the Wilful Blindness Executive Masterclass, Vijaya Nath explains why learning to tackle institutional blindspots is vital to great leadership.

Great leadership requires the integrity to act on and live our values. As a leadership development practitioner and an experienced team leader, like many reading this, I know there are few new leadership secrets or ‘secret sauces’ left. Many leaders who I admire have the ability to act on their integrity, that is, give voice to their values. But this capacity and capability requires thinking space and practice.

One individual who has most enabled me to really reflect on my own practice is former CEO and TED speaker Margaret Heffernan. I’m looking forward to working with her at our upcoming Executive Masterclass on March 15 where she will share her extensive expertise on wilful blindness.

Among other hands-on activities we will be practising building our ‘ethical muscle memory’ which is one remedy for overcoming this important problem. Inspired by the work of Darden Professor Mary Gentile, we’ll explore and strengthen our ability as individuals to not only lead with integrity but act on and live those values we believe are critical to providing ‘just’ cultures in higher education. A culture in which staff and students flourish. Role-playing ethical dilemmas in this way helps us rehearse how to respond and go through appropriate processes.

Margaret’s work over many years has led her to the conclusion that while organisations may be ‘blind’ to their faults, people are not. As leaders, you know intimately what the issues are, so when you come to the masterclass, as well as having personal contact with Margaret, you’ll be able to work in real time on actionable interventions which you can use back in your institutions to change the culture.

Margaret and I share the belief that talk without action does little to bring positive change and this ethos underpins the design of this masterclass. We also know from our work with leaders at all levels that taking time out from the busy world is essential to enable thinking time, talking with leaders who are sharing similar challenges, practising helpful techniques and critically nourishing your leadership muscle strength!

We look forward to welcoming you on Thursday March 15.

Vijaya Nath is director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation. 

Find out more about the Wilful Blindness Executive Masterclass

The final masterclass of the series, Mindful Leadership is now booking. Find out more here.

Is your governing body biased?

Is cognitive bias and the use of heuristics responsible for poor decision-making in higher education? Do members of the governing body have unconscious biases? These are some of the issues explored by new research published by the Leadership Foundation.

The authors of the report The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences examine the question of “heuristics and biases in board decision-making”, which raises some interesting questions.

Major board decisions typically involve complexity, and governors making judgements reflecting uncertainty. Limitations of time and processing power typically mean humans use simple rules of thumb – heuristics – to help guide their judgements. These are often helpful, but can sometimes lead to severe biases. This risk, together with cognitive bias – influencing individual preferences – is the subject of this newly published report.

When making decisions governors are unlikely to be aware of their own biases, and how these influence their judgements. Aside from action to reduce unconscious bias on equality and diversity, the report suggests no work has been done to raise awareness of others biases likely to be present in higher education governance. As a result, poor decisions may have resulted.

The risk of bias is increased when there a dominant decision-maker(s), complacent or intransigent attitudes, and group think. All of these, the report suggests, are commonly found in higher education governance.

Compared to the governing body or senate (or academic board), the power of heads of institutions (“personalised leadership”) and executives has increased. There is typically an imbalance in the frequency by which governors support and challenge the executive, and some governing bodies are too compliant in accepting of the view of the executive. Equally, the “voice of senate” should be heard. Overall, in most institutions a growing “management culture” is seen to have reduced the checks on the power of the executive.

The governance system, revolving around the relationships between a governing body, the senate, and the executive are critical if institutional governance is to be effective. The system involves “shared governance”. Recent studies on academic governance found, in too many cases, senates and governing bodies didn’t fully understand each other’s role and responsibilities. This is potentially a critical weakness. Faced with a more disruptive operating environment, resulting in increased risk and the need for faster decision-making, this raises the question of how the system of governance should evolve in the future?

Removing all biases to decision-making is difficult (and maybe impossible). The situation will be made worse if there is group think. Would changing the composition of the governing body address this issue? Is there a need to recruit from a more diverse base (in the widest sense) to enrich the membership of governing bodies beyond those groups who have traditionally been represented?

Similarly, as the boundaries between academic and corporate governance blur how does this affect the membership of the governing body? In addition to governors bringing intelligence, good judgement and commitment, is domain knowledge of higher education important? Does the Board need members, independent of the executive, with a background in higher education? If so, what proportion of governors should have higher education expertise, and what expertise? Do you need someone with expertise in, say, higher education policy or quality assurance or university management or administration?

What other issues require attention? Few would argue with the idea of providing sufficient time and (relevant!) information to allow governors to make informed decisions. But how easy is this in practice given the number of times governing bodies typically meet, and the size of most agendas when they do? Is a fundamental rethink to the model of governance required?

The idea that governing bodies should review past decisions, focusing not just on the decision made, but on the process, is to be promoted. This would establish a feedback-loop, enabling the governing body to reflect on the decision-making process and decisions made. However, a “full public disclosure” of the effectiveness reviews of governing bodies is likely to produce documents placed in the public domain that say very little.

Having raised the issue about the quality of Board decision-making, the authors of the report acknowledge that there is the need for more detailed research on how governing bodies make their decisions. Given a lack of sound and recent field research on the topic, this is arguably pressing. Not least there is a risk that cases of poor governance are highlighted in the media, while the many cases of effective governance remain hidden. Perhaps now is the time for the sector to undertake the necessary research and produce evidence to counter hear-say and ill-informed statements? If this happens, the authors of the current report will have served the sector well.

David Williams edits the governance section of the Leadership Foundation’s website. News alerts and notices of forthcoming events for governors and professional staff working in governance are regularly posted on the website. The website also contains an information repository, offering a range of resources to governors and those who support their work.

The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences is one of our Small Development Projects. Access the report hereThe 2018 Small Development Projects will be announced shortly. For more on all the Leadership Foundation’s Small Development Projects visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/SDP

For more information on our governance work visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance 

Why Leadership Matters

Christine Abbott is a facilitator of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation’s programme for senior women in higher education. Christine has has spent almost all her career in higher education, most recently as university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University. Here she considers how women can achieve senior roles in the sector and how Leadership Matters can support this.  

It is often said that success, in any walk of life, is less about what you know, than who you know. In our now extensively connected world this is increasingly true. Nevertheless good networks alone are rarely enough. Certainly successful leadership requires the ability to engage with people, to understand their motivations, and to recognise and develop their talents. But in addition, a sound bedrock of knowledge and experience are also needed. However the work environment is now so complex, and in such a state of continuing flux, that claiming to know enough to fully understand one’s organisation can seem a fanciful statement.

The tube map of universities

Navigating the current higher education sector, or even one’s own University, can sometimes feel more like travelling in the London underground than following the A to Z. A tourist in London might go down into the tube at Marble Arch, and pop back up at Westminster, and recognise the landmarks in both locations; but they may have little idea of the route between the two places, or what sits above ground as they travel through the tunnels. In our Universities this feeling of limited understanding can become a particular concern when colleagues move from one role to another, or from one department, faculty or service area to another. Moving between institutions or gaining promotion can exacerbate that consciousness of the blocks or blind spots in our understanding.

Why Leadership Matters

The aim of the Leadership Matters course is to fill in some of those gaps in understanding and knowledge, by looking at the frameworks – the strategic, financial, and governance frameworks – within which our institutions operate. Participants on previous cohorts have often been those who have gained promotion to middle or senior management positions, which bring them, perhaps for the first time, into a broader University arena, and feel there are gaps in their understanding of how the whole University entity fits together and functions.

The programme aims to help participants to get to grips with how their University operates, how it takes critical decisions, and the financial, legal, and reputational considerations that impact upon its decisions.

Module one, which is led by Gill Ball and myself, aims to ‘humanise’ some potentially dry topics, such as funding and finance, governance and decision making. Through practical small group work there will be plenty of opportunity for hands-on learning. Module one also includes a session led by a senior woman leader from the sector, on ‘navigating the organisation’. This session links the organisational perspective with the individual and personal, and provides the bridge into the Action Learning Sets and module two.

The second module, which is led by Rachael Ross and Sally Cray, focuses more closely on how to develop the personal impact necessary to be successful as a senior woman leader.

Impact of the programme

Leadership Matters is now being run for the eighth time, and from the outset the Leadership Foundation was keen for the programme to be women-only. The programme director, Rachael Ross, and the programme leaders have discussed a number of times the rationale for this, since as concerns module one, the topics discussed, and the approaches used, are gender neutral. Our conclusion, which has been reaffirmed after each of the cohorts that we have led to date, is that the women-only aspect of the programme enables a particularly rich and reflective quality to the discussions. This is most notably the case in the Action Learning Sets, and in module two of the programme, as colleagues draw upon their personal experiences of leadership and their leadership journey. As programme director Rachael Ross says: “We find that our senior delegates value a women-only programme. They are able to deepen their understanding of these key topics in an open, reflective way, challenge themselves to “claim” their unique leadership approach, and build a supportive network of women leaders right across higher education.”

It is the blend of the broad organisational perspective with the personal that makes this programme special.

At more junior levels in one’s career, the concern is primarily to be able to provide the answers to the questions you are asked. The more senior your role, the more important it becomes to know the questions to ask, how to ask them, and to whom those questions can and should be addressed. The Leadership Matters programme is designed to help female colleagues to identify both the questions, and the audience for those questions, and so to develop their confidence and effectiveness in their leadership roles.


Leadership Matters will be taking place in  Manchester and Bristol in Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.

5 steps to managing uncertainty

‘Managing uncertainty’ is a recurring and challenging aspect of leadership. Following his presentation at our recent governance conference, we asked Garry Honey of Better Boards, to summarise his 5-steps approach for governing bodies.

Uncertainty is a challenge for management boards and governing bodies within higher education

Acronyms like TUNA (turbulent-uncertain-novel-ambiguous) or VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) have been used to qualify new turbulent or volatile environments in which decisions need to be made. It is no coincidence that the key words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘ambiguity’ occur in both acronyms. The question we try to answer is – how should higher education leaders manage uncertainty to best advantage?

A governing body has a distinctly different role from a management board, yet there are some aspects shared by both. The most significant is having a vision of the future and making decisions around strategy and risk within the context of an environment containing uncertainty. Managing uncertainty is a leadership challenge.

An active approach

The first step towards managing uncertainty is to adopt an active approach to reducing risk which involves rejecting the traditional risk matrix based on probability and impact. This standard approach to risk management can be worse than useless as it can lead to misplaced confidence that all risks are known and understood; it ignores the fact that problems for organisations generally have multiple causes rather than a single risk event. The approach also leads managers and boards to ignore risks which they think will have a low probability but which could have a disastrous result. Instead, re-profile risk based on different axes: ease of control and ease of prediction. This will enable the leadership to actively reduce risk, and determine specific actions to improve control or prediction – a real benefit.

What’s on the risk register?

The second step is to separate risk, which can be estimated and assessed, from uncertainty which is simply unknown. Many risk registers conflate the two yet there is a growing realisation that a separation can be helpful. It is a matter of determining whether there is sufficient information to determine an outcome, where there is not there is uncertainty. The risk register should focus on outcomes which can be measured, the remainder being uncertainties.

Four types of uncertainty

The third step is to appreciate the four different types of uncertainty ranging from known-knowns to unknown-unknowns. The distinction between known-unknowns (jigsaw-type) and unknown-knowns (library-type) is most critical as correct labelling will determine the most suitable response. In each case information needs to be gathered but the method and location will be different.

Setting up coping mechanisms

The fourth step is the coping mechanism to deal with different types of uncertainty and the resources required to secure and act on it. This is where the governing body needs to work with the management board to calculate the cost-benefit of reducing uncertainty, especially where in some cases forecasts and estimates will inevitably be the more prudent option.

Avoid groupthink: be brave

The fifth and final step in managing uncertainty is to eliminate misplaced certainty. This is the human element inherent in cognitive bias and assumptions. This is challenging the conventional wisdom and beliefs that can render a board too complacent for sound judgement: anchoring, referencing, confirmation bias, over optimism, risk aversion, cognitive dissonance and groupthink.

Effective governance and leadership requires collective responsibility, yet a board is comprised of a disparate group of individuals so achieving this can be difficult. Improving board effectiveness is not simply a matter of getting the right people or processes, but of securing the right mind-set around the table. Judgement is the framework in which decisions are made collectively so this needs to be well-informed and free from prejudice. Bravery is needed to challenge some assumptions.

Why is bravery important? Because forecasting the future is rarely accurate, a cynic will say there are only two types of forecast: lucky and wrong! Higher education faces uncertainties about success metrics. Historically measured by research excellence and global ranking, today universities are expected to perform in student satisfaction and alumni employability rankings. Many universities failed to achieve the rankings they expected in TEF, because their priorities are on research excellence and the funding this attracts. The resources for research are not the same as for teaching.

Bravery is also important in the governing body when it comes to defining value to other stakeholders, such as the Treasury or Government. Who in your remuneration committee will challenge a vice-chancellor salary award or suggest that staff morale should be a higher priority? Furthermore, how should a governing body view the recruitment of foreign students to courses because they pay higher fees and represent a lucrative income stream?

The biggest challenge for universities comes in the wake of the NAO report suggesting that the sector as a whole delivers poor value for money. A loan-based system has a very different dynamic to a grant-based one, creating ‘customers’ who decide on the cost-benefit of a university education within the context of their career.  For the next generation student debt repayment could become a burden as big as mortgage repayment for ours. There is uncertainty about the purpose of higher education and hence how value is determined. There are 130 universities in the UK which, as one delegate commented ‘all operate the same strategy’. Is this sustainable?

Garry Honey is the co-founder of Better Boards, leadership advisors on governance and risk issues. He has worked with several universities and leading business schools together with his colleague and co-founder Paul Moxey. Better Boards works with governing bodies and leadership teams to help them implement this five step process to managing uncertainty. 

For more on the Leadership Foundation’s series of programmes and events for those working in governance in higher education, including our new Academic Governance resources visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance

 

How I got onto a board

Jenny Ames worked in academia for 35 years across eight universities. Keen to join a board she attended a Women onto Boards event in 2017 and was appointed board member of Aneurin Leisure in July 2017. Here she reflects on her personal journey to board member.  

Becoming a board member is something that I started to seriously consider around 10 years ago, but the seeds were sown much earlier at the beginning of my career.

My background is in food chemistry research, as an applied subject this meant much of my research involved collaborating with industry. For example my first postdoctoral contract was funded by an American multi-national and following that as a head of my research group, most of my grants involved at least one external company. I enjoyed working with people from the private sector, learning how their companies operated and seeing my expertise being applied to address the challenges they faced. They valued my knowledge and ability to manage my research team and deliver projects on time. I got a sense of achievement.

Get a mentor or coach who is right for you

When I started my academic career in the early 1980s, there was no Leadership Foundation and, at least in my university, no culture of formal mentoring or coaching. From 2005-2017 I lived away from the family home in the week and progressed my career at four universities in different parts of the UK. It became important to me to be part of the community where I worked. I had also reached the stage where I had a wealth of experience that others could benefit from, including mentoring however, it was only in my last 10 years in academia that I myself benefited from various mentors and coaches to whom I will always be grateful.

The most valuable experience I had was with a professional coach and it was she who encouraged me to work towards a board role. The advice was three-fold: find someone who has such a role and ask to shadow them, go on a course so you understand more about what it involves, and join the Institute of Directors (IoD). I didn’t get around to shadowing someone but I did join the IoD.

Learn the basics

Importantly, my faculty supported me to attend an intensive two-day programme, The Effective Non-Executive Director, run by the Financial Times. This covered the soft skills and the hard skills required of a successful non-executive director (NED). This course gave me the tools I needed and it included a session with a NED head hunter. She advised that for someone who hadn’t been on a board before (like me), a good place to start was as a school governor or a trustee of a charity. Another attendee suggested joining Women on Boards to find possible roles. I also engaged with Reach Volunteering and I registered on the SGOSS Governors for Schools website.

Understand the value of the skills you do have and know your own values

It was the SGOSS site where I found an advert for a school governor about 10 miles from my flat. I applied, met with the head teacher and chair and deputy chair of the Board of Governors and was appointed.

I have a separate CV and covering letter template for board roles. The focus is hard skills like budgeting, health and safety, and governance. Soft skills include committee chairing and mentoring. I do not have any children, and so had no experience or knowledge of the current school system, but working at a local university was attractive to the school along with my experience of, for example, managing budgets and chairing large, formal meetings (although all in a research context). It was also important to be able to demonstrate that my values about enabling people to reach their potential aligned with their own.

This role got me off the starting blocks and I was very fortunate to find myself in an excellently run school. I learnt a lot about school education and was able to contribute to the finance and resource sub-committee. I left after a year as I was moving to another university.

Use your network

Early in 2017 I attended one of the Leadership Foundation Women onto Boards events aimed at encouraging more women to apply for a board position. Having given up the school governor role and done nothing since I decided to look for a new position. One point made at the event was that men often get a board position by asking someone in their network for help. Having a large and diverse network, I decided to take this approach. I had recently met someone at a regional IoD meeting and was due to follow up with him. When I asked for advice about a board role, he mentioned that something was coming up that might suit me. He put me in touch with the organisation so I could find out more. Shortly afterwards the job was advertised nationally and I applied. I was interviewed in June and appointed in July 2017 as a member of the board of trustees at Aneurin Leisure in South Wales.  It is early days and I plan to spend a day with the trust to help me to better understand how I can contribute.

A final word

It is important to join an organisation that you feel passionate about. One whose values align with your own. You are contributing your time and skills, usually for free. If you and the organisation are well aligned, you will both be amply rewarded.


Women onto Boards
For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage.

Governor Development
Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

Our Equality and Diversity Programmes
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is committed to addressing the lack of representation in senior executive leadership positions of both women and people from BME backgrounds. You can find out more here.

About Jenny
Jenny Ames had a 35 year academic career across eight universities before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She works with universities, businesses and their stakeholders to develop strategy and talent and initiate and nurture cross sector collaborations. Jenny is now a member of the board at Aneurin Leisure and an Aurora role model.