'Hot hints' for scoring a non-executive board role as a lawyer

By Kathryn Higgins

02 November 2016 at 10:46 BST

Seasoned director Helen Mahy shared her top ten tips for lawyers in-house and out who are on the hunt for a non-executive board role with delegates at this year's GC Futures Summit in London.


Finding a pathway onto a company board as someone who has made their career as a lawyer is no easy task. Cast as cautious, inflexible and with limited management know-how – the ‘no’ people of the corporate world – lawyers often have an uphill climb ahead of them if they’re to push their CV to the top of the pile. However, never fear – seasoned director and onetime GC Helen Mahy has some advice to help get you through. Speaking yesterday for the GC Futures Summit 2016, Mahy shared with delegates her ‘hot hints’ for scoring their first non-executive role with a professional background in law:

1. Try and get your first non-exec role while you’re still in a day job as a GC. ‘When I got my first non-exec role fourteen years ago… I was supported by my chairman and CEO who actually thought it would be a brilliant new development for me,’ recounted Mahy, adding that having some existing non-executive experience was a big help when moving out of the GC space and into more non-executive management roles later in her career.

2. Redo your CV to highlight your skills and experience in a different way. Boards don’t tend to warm to people who are ‘too lawyery’, she warned, so top-tier legal experience isn’t always going to cut it with headhunters and companies looking for new board members. A better bet will be to make sure your business management skills and experience are front and centre, rather than your legal accomplishments.

3. It takes time and effort. Don’t expect a role to materialise overnight, and realise that finding the right role for you may take even longer. The earlier you start putting your feelers out, the better.

4. Get creative about networking. Lawyers are coming from non-standard roles as far as board membership is concerned, and often end up on the long-list for non-executive positions. To get on the short list, let your desire to secure a non-executive role known from very early on so that you’re on people’s radar. If you’re only known and seen by those in your personal and professional network as a GC, people won’t have you in mind when unique opportunities arise.

5. A controversial word of warning: not every GC makes a good non-executive director. When you’re on a board, a lot of your decision-making needs to be undertaken on the basis of trust, and this doesn’t often come easily to lawyers. A change of mindset from a lawyer who advises on big decisions to a non-executive board member who makes them is essential. Be honest with yourself about whether this type of role is right for you.  

6.  Look at what you can do right now. Can you widen your portfolio? The answer is probably yes: ‘If you’re a willing volunteer you can get all sorts of things,’ says Mahy, encouraging lawyers to get experience in as many areas of their business as they can and in a wide variety of management and operations roles. Also, look out for ‘stepping stone’ opportunities. Can you be a non-exec director of a subsidiary in your own group? Can you take on non-exec work outside your sector e.g. charity sector? Keep your eyes peeled.

7. Be brave. Bravery, says Mahy, is about being willing to venture into somewhat unknown territory when an opportunity presents itself. You might not feel as confident stepping into a new non-executive role as you would a new legal position, but trust in your skills, your ability to contribute and your capacity to learn as you go.   

8. However, also be careful. Make sure you do your due diligence on the opportunities that come your way, and if things don’t feel quite right, always go with your gut.

9. Choose your references carefully. The person who knows you’re a great lawyer, like your CEO, might not be the best person to recommend you as a great manager for a non-executive role. A better bet is to seek out people who know and have experience with your broader management skillset, and can testify as to what you can bring to the table as a leader and decision-maker.

10. It seems obvious, but try and pick something you will actually enjoy. If you feel passionately about the company, their business and their people, you’re likely to get a lot more out of the role.  

Helen Mahy is a non-executive director at SSE who serves as Chair of the Renewables Infrastructure Group Limited and as Chair of the Advisory Board of Obelisk International. She has also been a director of Bonheur ASA since 2013 and an independent non-executive director at SVG Capital PLC since 2014. Formerly, Mahy served as company secretary and general counsel for National Grid Electricity Transmission PLC and was named as ‘Company Secretary of the Year’ by the Institute of Company Secretaries and Administrators in 2011.


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