When civil servant, Roisin Kelly, attended a leadership event with her then boss, permanent secretary, Sue Gray, in 2019, she could scarcely have believed how much this event would change the course of her life – both professionally and personally.
“I was actually shadowing Sue Gray at the time,” says Roisin, “and we were at a leadership event. I got chatting to some people who had been participants in the previous year’s Boardroom Apprentice programme and, within a short space of time, I was totally hooked!
“I was quite comfortable in my finance background, but after seeing the Boardroom Apprentice programme in action, I was completely hooked!
“I got chatting to the girls that day and thought that it sounded really good. What really appealed to me was the fact that there was so much talk about you not thinking that you were boardroom material. I’d never considered myself in that context, so it really resonated with me.”
A native of County Down town Bangor, Roisin is a chartered accountant, who works in the Department of Finance at Stormont.
As a result of that momentous evening in 2019, Roisin participated in the Boardroom Apprentice programme, which placed her in a twelve-month programme.
Roisin’s particular interest was the mental health sector and, within a short period of time, she realised that she wanted to get a place on a finance committee board.
That board was to be the board of New Life Counselling: a local charity based in North and East Belfast, which provides counselling services across Northern Ireland.
“My particular interest was the voluntary/community sector and especially in the mental health sector. This was something from which my family and I have benefited over the years and I thought that was a perfect place from which I could contribute. I knew that I could give back and contribute to other organisations.
“Suddenly, I found myself challenging board papers and the key points in the terms of the governance aspects of my responsibilities on the board. This was something I wouldn’t have had much knowledge of previously. I really felt that I developed all-round skills and these, in addition to the training provided by Boardroom Apprentice – such as communication skills, and questioning skills”
Roisin was fortunate enough to witness the merging of New Life Counselling with Action Mental Health, which provided an opportunity to learn from the complications encountered amongst the transition phase and how they adapted to and managed the board as it merged.
Action Mental Health is an amazing charity providing resilience and recovery services across the country and the addition of the New Life Counselling service to their offering provided this additional lifeline for both adults, children and families children. The charity provides a vital lifeline for many people and I wanted to be part of an organisation that provides services to people that really need them.”
Over the next year, New Life Counselling and Action Mental Health merged and Roisin, in her role as a board member, was there to witness the change and transition.
“It was a really interesting year seeing how they merged,” she says, “and how that worked in terms of the legal aspects, in terms of the HR issues, the staff transferring across, the PR aspect. It was a fascinating year to be part of it.”
Having benefited personally, Roisin felt the Boardroom Apprentice facilitated a voluntary experience to make a difference to a sector that relied heavily on volunteers and that made a difference to people’s lives.
“Thanks to the programme, I really felt that I could give back and contribute to other organisations,” she says. “It was for that reason I thought it would be perfect for me. Doing something on a voluntary basis made me feel that I was helping someone else through my own lifetime experiences.
“A number of people I would rate very highly were on the panel and just being able to deliver my presentation and answer their questions made me so proud of our group and the work that we put into it.”
Working in central government – an immense organisation – undoubtedly influenced Roisin, since providing for other sectors was an aspect to which she was completely accustomed and so transferring these skills to the Boardroom Apprentice gave her no difficulty.
Eileen Mullen, founder of the boardroom apprentice, was Roisin’s major mentor in supporting her throughout – and after – the programme.
“You can’t not be inspired by her and what she does,” Roisin continues. “She would inspire anybody. If you meet her, within ten minutes you want to give back.”
Roisin’s admiration for Eileen stems from the passion she’s transferred to the Boardroom Apprentice, which promotes diversification through defying the stereotype of boards composed of the same cultural and class background.
Differing opinions are vital to the process and the Boardroom Apprentice encourages people from all backgrounds, with different professional but more importantly personal life experiences to take part.
“Anybody could sit on a board and will have something to contribute if they’re interested in that board, in that organisation and what they do,” says Roisin. “You don’t have to have 30 years of experience in senior management in an organisation. You don’t have to come from a big private sector firm. You just have to have your own life experiences.”
As a result of taking part in the programme, Roisin is now a Trustee on the board for Action Mental Health.
“Action Mental Health provides a vital lifeline for many people and it’s just great to be part of one organisation in that sector that’s there and providing these services to people who really need them,” she continues.
“The Boardroom Apprentice programme is definitely a network and the friendships that were made during that year remain sure and steadfast. They’ll always be there.
“I have two small children and was working full time throughout the Boardroom Apprentice programme, so it was tough. Having said that, it’s like anything….it’s about planning and knowing where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be doing….well in advance. I had to make sure I knew well in advance about board meetings so that I made time to properly read the board papers.
“This ensured that I went into board meetings fully informed and asked appropriate questions. I think that all employers should be supporting a programme like this and should provide staff with the time to participate in this, not only because of the learning skills right across the board, but because participants can pick up so many skills that can be applied in their work environment and beyond.
“I don’t think I have the words to say how great the Boardroom Apprentice programme is. My husband says he sees the difference in me from completing the programme. I have more confidence in myself and my own abilities. I just loved it.”