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Don't Agree to Anything in the Boardroom That Could Leave You Red-Faced in Public

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Martina Devlin, IoD Chartered Director Programme participant, details her experience of embarking on the programme in an article in the Irish Independent.

I'm back in the classroom for the first time in 18 years. Nobody told me how exhausting it would be to sit in a room for eight hours absorbing information. As I write this, I can't believe I have to go back and do it all over again today - my brain wants 24 hours off to recover.

In the run-up to my return to education, I've been having minor panics about not being able for the coursework. I knew that what I was embarking on this week was outside my comfort zone. But I feared it was out of my league.

In fact - as challenging as I'm finding it, it's also rewarding. I've started to think maybe I can do this. And that's both empowering and reassuring. Don't misunderstand me - I know it will take a great deal of concentration, and I'm not a natural at the subject. But, if I maintain focus, I believe I can make it through the year and hopefully pass the professional exams.

All of us need our comfort blankets. On my first day I trotted off with a raft of new pens, notebooks and folders, plus two energy bars which my husband had popped into my handbag. It gave me a flashback to schooldays, when my mother packed a chocolate bar in my satchel for the afternoon slump.

I'm enrolled in the chartered director programme with the Institute of Directors (IoD)in Ireland. Some 30pc of us are women. Many of my fellow students, male and female, are already non-executive directors or want to join boards.

I've been a non-executive director on a charity board for more than a year - an unpaid position - and, although I find it interesting, I've become increasingly uneasy. What exactly are my responsibilities? How do I contribute constructively to discussions? What's corporate governance, about which we hear so much? What are the boardroom do's and don’ts? Some of them I could guess - don't allow conflicts of interest, for example, and don't be railroaded by groupthink - but some I was unclear about.

There was a time when most of us were flattered to be invited to join a board. But with recent scandals - from the Central Remedial Clinic to Rehab, which this week had its board almost totally replaced - joining boards is a frightening prospect.

I know some people who've stepped down from voluntary boards and not-for-profits because they were concerned about governance, and worried that if it went wrong it would impact on their fitness and probity. The danger is boards will become too corporate as a result.

Equally, it's clear that good intentions among members aren't enough. It takes certain skills to be effective on a board - and that's why I'm embarking on this programme.

There are other reasons. Lifelong learning is something I believe in. Also, it makes sense to upskill - my qualifications are all in the arts or media, and I'd like to add another string to my bow. Business interests me, I can see how it impacts on all our lives, and I'm keen to develop a deeper understanding of it.

Occasionally, I write about the need for more women to participate in decision-making. Now, I've decided to practise what I preach and attempt to acquire skill sets to put me in a position to do it, should the opportunity arise.

While we hear about boards being "male, pale and stale" - and many remain in that time-warp - there is an increased understanding that board diversity leads to better decision-making. Women have a contribution to make. And not just women, but people from socio-economic and geographical backgrounds, and ethnicities.

Many boards are comprised of men who all went to the same school and socialise in the same set, meaning the perspectives directed towards problem-solving are monochrome.

So, what have I learned? So far, the most important message is this: don't agree to anything in the boardroom which will give you a red face if it becomes public. And remember, you are there to act primarily in the best interests of the organisation - nothing and nobody else.

"The dynamic changes when there are women in the group. Women aren't afraid to say they don't understand something," said IoD chief executive Maura Quinn.

But she said the key factor in terms of diversity on boards was to have people from different backgrounds, with different experiences and competencies.

"If we look at the composition of boards, quite a few of them are chartered accountants. They tend to look at things in a particular way. We need these people, but we need other people, too.

"A discussion can't purely be around the financial impact of something. There has to be someone saying: 'What's the impact on the customer or on our reputation?' That's where diversity enriches a board - members challenge one another."

While a changing of the guard is under way with regard to the composition of boards, interlocking directorships remain a problem, with the same names cropping up again and again - a malaise which contributed to Ireland's economic crash.

People are still being appointed to boards in a non-transparent way - both private and state boards.

As Ms Quinn pointed out, we can't expect one standard in the private sector and another in the public sector. Patronage continues to be a factor in appointments. "Change was promised, but it hasn't been manifest in the lifetime of this government and it's a pity," she said.

One of the most fascinating aspects to the IoD programme I'm taking part in is the range of people from a tapestry of backgrounds. Just like in college.

Unlike the good old days, however, break-time now is for checking in with the office, sending emails and juggling other commitments.

Author: Martina Devlin

Source: Irish Independent