June 5, 2023 Admin

From Corporate To Charity: Boardroom Apprentice Programme Gives Gillian A Sense Of Community

Gillian Orr

By Zahra Baz

Gillian Orr has spent most of her adult life in the corporate world but she’s always had a desire to give back to her local community.

The Belfast woman, who now lives in Lisburn, was working as a Corporate Affairs Manager for Bank of Ireland last year when an opportunity came along that would give her the opportunity to fulfil her community-led desire.

With a strong belief system rooted in giving back to society and making a positive impact, the 42-year-old took a step outside her comfort zone and applied for the Boardroom Apprentice in 2022.

“I wanted to be a part of the conversations that drive change, and help bring a different voice and perspective to the table,” she explained.

“I knew I had a lot to give, but it was about having the confidence and opportunity to learn how to serve, and apply what I had learned, in a safe yet practical way.

“Without the Boardroom Apprentice, there are little to no ways of doing this.”

Established in 2017 by Eileen Mullan, the Boardroom Apprentice is a one-of-a-kind programme that runs over the course of 12-months, and provides a safe and supportive environment for individuals who are interested in serving on public or third sector boards to gain experience and develop their skills. The programme combines board learning, development, and placement to offer participants a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of board service before taking the leap.

For her Boardroom Apprentice experience Gillian was placed with south Belfast based charity Nexus NI, an organisation that works to support those impacted by sexual abuse and abusive relationships.

“The application process was incredibly straightforward and I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your ‘why’ – it’s at the heart of the whole programme” said Gillian, adding: “You need your ‘why’ to encourage you throughout as it is a programme that requires commitment. 

“Without knowing why you want to be a part of this programme, it would be easy to give up when it gets tough.”

Although Gillian didn’t have a specific board in mind when she applied to the programme she quickly realised the wealth of opportunities the programme offered and was drawn to a few host boards because of the work they do.

She explained: “When I was applying for the programme, I didn’t have a specific host board in mind and found that I had actually underestimated just how many host boards that were available to us. 

“I was really fortunate to be placed with Nexus NI. The entire board was so welcoming right from the beginning and encouraged me to speak up, get involved and ask questions in an environment that was safe and secure.

“My board buddy, Sheryl, was a great support system to have, which made sharing my thoughts with her ahead of board meetings invaluable to my learning and development throughout the programme. I never felt as though I was being treated differently to a full board member, I felt included and respected from the get go.”

The Boardroom Apprentice acknowledges the importance of providing formal training and support to individuals who aspire to serve on a board. However, the programme also emphasises the need for upskilling, and every participant is expected to attend a series of structured learning days to enhance their skills and knowledge.

Upon reflection Gillian felt she developed in both a professional and personal manner, and found herself fascinated by the programme.

“I developed so many professional and personal skills over the course of the programme – from understanding finance better to governance, communication and effective questioning. But perhaps my biggest learning is that I do actually have the skills and experience to give and that having different opinions, insights and outlooks make for more effective board discussions” she said.

“Honestly, I learned so much during the programme.

“I learnt about the importance of relationships with the board members, and how to effectively question and challenge in a way that gets my point across but is still respectful. I also learnt that it’s impossible to be an expert in everything and that that’s okay – you don’t need to be. Instead, you need to trust the experts you’re working alongside.

“However, you do need to know enough about each of the different areas of discussion in order to effectively question and ensure constructive oversight.

“As well as the board meetings, I had the opportunity to join the Business Development sub-committee which allowed me to become more involved with the Nexus’ in the delivery of their strategic objectives.

“I also happened to join at a time when the strategy was being reviewed, and had the opportunity to take part in the board’s strategy review and planning sessions. This allowed me to see first hand how the strategy was designed and delivered to the board, leadership team and other colleagues. Seeing the board evolve and iterate before finalisation truly felt like a real privilege.

“I was so surprised seeing the way all the different elements came together as the programme progressed. It was fascinating,” she added. “It’s similar to a jigsaw puzzle in that you begin to see the overall picture more clearly as the programme progresses.”

While completing the programme’s project work, Gillian found herself developing greater interpersonal skills that proved helpful when it came to mirroring the experience of being a new board member. 

Additionally, Gillian found herself able to learn skills across a vast number of different areas that she wouldn’t typically have had insight to, such as finance analysis and governance. 

What’s more, she found that these skills were accessible at all levels and applicable in her host board setting.

“Taking part in the Boardroom Apprentice has been a game-changer for me. It’s given me the tools and knowledge that I was missing when it came to wanting to succeed as a board member” she said.

“Now, after having been able to observe and practically apply insights from the learning days, I feel much more confident and prepared.

“When I think back, it’s remarkable to think about how many new doors have been opened up for me. I’ve met so many great people through the programme that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I’ve developed new skills that I can apply in my personal and professional life.

“Even from a confidence perspective, I’m holding myself back much less. I’ve truly become comfortable with the uncomfortable, as Eileen likes to say.

“For anyone thinking about applying for this year’s Boardroom Apprentice, go for it! There’s a board out there that needs you.”

Applications for the Boardroom Apprentice 2023 programme open on Monday June 5 and close at 3pm on Monday June 19.

To apply go the Boardroom Apprentice programme go to boardroomapprentice.com/how-to-apply