Why it’s critical to have a “Board You Cannot Afford”​

I was fortunate enough several years ago to be introduced to three interesting women in a very short time period – just at the point the Women on Boards discussion in the UK was hotting up with the publication of the Davies Review into the status of women on boards in the UK. And to the concept of A Board You Cannot Afford and why having one is critical in business and life.

My work at the time meant I had very few relatable female role models – working in a totally male leadership team. I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was struggling to raise my visibility and progress my career at the same rate as many of my (all male) peers. I gradually realised that like many (especially women) in the workplace, my networks were few, limited in depth, breadth and quite frankly focus – not helped by having very little time (I had just given birth to our daughter).

Around this time, I came across the work of Julia Hobsbawm that she was initiating at Cass Business School on relationships, networks and social health. Her thinking really influenced me then (and continues to now) in how I approach, build and manage relationships and networks. Her focus on connectedness in the Age of Overload that we inhabit and particularly how to identify, approach and manage networks effectively has been transformational for me.

Unlike most of the “thinking” out there which is either too academic to be practically applied or focuses predominantly on how to work a room, Julia gives you the theory and practical application.  She focuses on the why, the how and the what of relationships and networks in a hugely relatable and manageable way. I am now much more conscious of why, who and how I connect both within my existing networks and also outside of my networks. The latter is equally important as the former, it feeds the ongoing need for diversity of thought within my network (this is particularly true at the moment!) and avoids inhabiting my own bubble/echo chamber. As well as committing sufficient time and consistency to it – planning and connecting with intent and care.

Julia was also instrumental in bringing together Zella King and I through an event she hosted. Zella’s work on Who is in your personal boardroom? really helped me to understand the need to have a personal boardroom made up of individuals who could help me navigate my career and next steps as I took them. Having a strong and focused network was important to help me deliver value to my employer and deliver, and added to my social capital – having a personal board room helped me to navigate my career moves and difficult situations far more effectively. Critically, these individuals are not necessarily friends although they often do become ones. Their role is to support, champion and challenge you. There are no age or experience boundaries – they are as likely to be an octogenarian professional as a 20 something year old tech savvy entrepreneur. Trust and reciprocity are the foundations of these relationships. My network and personal boardroom have come into their own even more now that I am running my own business.

These key concepts of relationships and networks in a career context are not taught to women – I’m not sure many men are taught either, but they do oftentimes have more readily available access by default. I witnessed this again most recently at a dinner for investment bankers that I was invited to. The number of young men (sons, godsons, mentees, employees etc) who had been brought along by the predominantly male attendees compared to the number of young women (there were a few!) served as an example of how this plays out.

Critically, I was fortunate to be introduced to Joanne Hession. We had a long conversation in a Sainsburys’ car park of all places and was one those conversations you remember (she was introduced to me by a member of my personal boardroom!). Joanne is based in Ireland and has a set up LIFT Ireland to improve the quality of leadership in public and private institutions in Ireland. She very generously shared with me the concept of A Board You Cannot Afford. For many years, Joanne has had such a board made up of other inspirational business professionals who spend quality time together away on retreats working through their challenges – work and personal – no distinction. It has been transformational for them.

I feel strongly that every leader needs to aspire to A Board You Cannot Afford. In my executive coaching and business mentoring work with business founders and owners in particular, I often challenge them to identify and approach individuals to strive for the inspirational, to stretch their beliefs and build a truly inspiring group of individuals as their Board they cannot afford. I often find that aspiration can be very low with clients and by opening minds and entertaining the art of the possible – great things can happen! It really is possible to establish a mind bogglingly impressive Board you cannot afford through clarity of purpose and impact!

Building targeted, well nurtured relationships and networks is such essential knowledge and skillset. I spend a great deal of my time when working with coachees and mentees on the issue of networks and networking – especially women – who once they grasp the framework mentioned above and requirements, frequently prove very effective at taking forward their networks and building successful careers and businesses.

Rebecca Hill of Wise Sherpa specialises in executive coaching, business mentoring and is a consultant on strategy and change. For more information please get in touch using the details on the contact page of this website.



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