I notice board apprenticeships being discussed with growing frequency now.
I was a Board Apprentice many years ago. That is how my board portfolio got a start and lift-off although by then I was also a charity trustee for a small but mighty charity set up by two millennials.
There is understandably some debate about whether board-appointable professionals, who are somehow not the “norm”, need yet another extra hurdle of proving their worth. The word “apprentice” seems to devalue their experience. The unpaid nature of a board apprenticeship is also seen as limiting the opportunities to those, who can afford such a gig.
But as long as board recruitment remains obscure and non-transparent, the extra hoops may still need to be jumped.
To that extent, as a former Board Apprentice, I have championed the case for board apprentices. With mixed results.
As more and more board colleagues inquire about how to get started with such a programme, I thought it is time to write up some of the stuff I find myself repeating.
Goes without saying this should be the first question to ask. What do you mean? Of course we are ready!
Are you though?
Why are you signing up to hosting a board apprentice? Nobody but your board can answer this for you.
When I proposed the idea of a board apprentice to the-then Chairman of the governing body of the university I was serving on, we both had shared fatigue with rarely seeing any minority candidates on candidate lists. The vision was to have a board that, if it stood with our student body, could not be easily marked out. In other words, we wanted the board to reflect the rich diversity of our student body. If we were not going to be given such candidates by recruiters, we were going to become a “talent incubator” ourselves. Enter stage left – the Board Apprentice programme! Once this commitment was secured, the rest was process, more on which below.
I speak with many board directors considering the idea and in the process I have observed a range of views on the matter. There is the fully committed chairman who wants to broaden governance talent pools to fish in, then there is the chairman who understandably needs concerns allaying, and then there are others — including the resistant-but-persuadable and the completely-opposed.
There are legitimate questions about creation of shadow directorship, liability coverage and confidentiality. Confidentiality can be addressed through the apprenticeship contract; indeed the risk to an apprentice’s reputation, should they seek to breach confidences, is sizeable so that may serve as a preventative mechanism too. Shadow directorship risks are real and like any risks, they need to be mitigated in practice. Merely saying the apprentice is “an observer” (link worth reading) does not suffice. The chairman and the board play a key role in managing this risk actively (more on this below).
The culture of the board is a critical component in ensuring that both the host board and the apprentice have a meaningful experience. If only one person on your board cares about the apprentice, well, that is not really helpful. The board needs to commit as a whole to the apprenticeship, make the apprentice feel welcome (and not as if they are a burden), and participate in the experience of coaching the apprentice (and learning from the apprentice, because these are usually highly experienced people who bring fresh eyes to the board). As mentioned earlier, the board on the whole needs to be vigilant that a shadow directorship is not created.
Once the board commits to hosting a board apprentice, things are more operational in nature.
This can be a sizeable challenge as there are too many programmes now, including some run by recruiters and headhunters. Much depends on your goals. For a broadly diverse pool of candidates who have been vetted, you could approach the Board Apprentice programme created by Charlotte Valeur. If you would like to access a talent pool amongst persons of colour, you could speak with EPoC. One director I spoke with mentioned tapping their HEI’s alumni pool for candidates.
The interview needs to be meaningful. My own interview was conducted as if I were being interviewed for a board role. The board apprentices I interviewed subsequently were interviewed similarly including for coachability, their readiness for board directorship, and their keenness to learn about governance.
Communication and engagement
It is important to identify the terms of engagement. These include clear expectation setting on both sides, an induction programme so the apprentice has a baseline, mentoring/ buddying so the apprentice could regularly speak with one or more board colleagues, feedback mechanisms, and any exit processes so the board could capture and codify learnings from the programme too.
Our experience with board apprentices at the University has been very satisfying.
The apprentices were invited to attend all committee and board meetings, which gave them a well-rounded view of the work of the governing body. As a former board apprentice, I offered to be the mentor or “buddy” to them. Regular catchups gave us a chance to talk about the experience, both the good things and the bad things, and an opportunity to provide additional information and support as needed.
And on their part, the apprentices read board papers, clarified things, shared reflections and made the most of the experience. Indeed our first board apprentice was recruited during the pandemic and had a mostly virtual experience till face-to-face contact was restored.
With vacancies arising both apprentices attended further interviews and were invited to join the governing body as independent governors with one serving as a committee chair not too long after joining the board.
It takes both a willing, welcoming and committed board, and a committed board apprentice to make the experience worthwhile for both sides.
Start with the “why?” and whether you are ready!
(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, or Witan, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.)