By Zahra Baz
Ciara Burch had long recognised the impact of board involvement throughout her role as a Project Management Consultant at PwC.
The Belfast-native previously felt she lacked the experience and knowledge required to sit on a board before the opportunity to gain hands-on experience came along.
With a strong desire to better understand the societal needs of Northern Ireland, the 36-year-old was quick to apply for the Boardroom Apprentice back in 2022.
“I was attracted to apply for the opportunity because I wanted to learn how to be effective on a board, and gain a better understanding of the big societal questions that the public sector and charity boards face and deal with on a daily basis.
“In the past I’ve worked in organisations that have answered to boards so I’ve really seen the impact they can have on major decisions.
“I really wanted to better understand how the board was part of the ecosystem when it came to these public organisations.”
In 2017, Eileen Mullan established the Boardroom Apprentice initiative. This programme offers a distinctive opportunity for individuals interested in serving on public or third sector board to acquire knowledge, develop skills, and gain practical experience in a safe environment before venturing into the actual boardroom.
For her Boardroom Apprentice experience Ciara was placed with Belfast based charity Housing Rights, which works to help people in Northern Ireland live in safe, suitable, and affordable homes.
“The application process was incredibly simple and straightforward, just make sure to be open and honest because that will make your experience all the more meaningful.
“It’s incredibly important to understand why you want to sit on a board and, if you have a particular host board in mind, why you want to be matched with that one specifically. Knowing and understanding your ‘why’ directly affects how you make decisions so you really do need to be clear on that.”
For Ciara, she applied to Boardroom Apprentice with one overarching goal: to learn something brand new.
“I actually didn’t have a particular type of board that I wanted to serve on when it came to my application. For me it was more about understanding the role of boards and how they impact the work done in Northern Ireland on a societal scale.
“However, I selected charity host boards because it was beyond the realms of my normal working life and was an entirely new experience for me.
“Being on the Housing Rights board was such a meaningful experience. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and it opened my eyes to the key role that organisations and charities play in our society, the challenges they face and the innovative way they deal with challenges.
“I feel I got a really in-depth experience because I was invited to attend board activities at every level and was encouraged to be part of all of the activities. It really let me see the key role that every member plays in the room as well as the importance of asking the awkward questions!”
Recognising the significance of offering formal training and assistance to aspiring board members, the Boardroom Apprentice programme places a strong emphasis on upskilling. Every participant is required to participate in a series of structured learning days, which have been designed to enrich their abilities and broaden their knowledge. By prioritising skill enhancement in this way, the programme ensures that each individual is well-equipped to take on board positions with both confidence and competence.
With her expectations exceeded, Ciara initially anticipated the Boardroom Apprentice as more of a stepping stone towards board service. It was after the programme began that she recognised the emphasis on personal development.
“The programme was much more than I expected” said Ciara, adding: “There was a greater focus on personal development than I assumed would be possible in a programme of this scale.
“For example, communication was a key skill that was heavily emphasised throughout the programme so we were given the tools to tailor our communication styles to our audience in order to communicate messages or to question potential assumptions.
“On top of that, the calibre of the guest lecturers was far beyond what I could have expected. This includes some of the key personalities in public life who spoke with enthusiasm for what the programme is aiming to achieve. They shared their personal stories and spoke candidly of the difficulties they face in life, and passionately about what drives them to want to do better – their ‘why’.”
Additionally, Ciara often found herself pleasantly surprised by unexpected elements of the programme that went beyond her initial expectations.
“I was genuinely taken aback by the strength of the community that the Boardroom Apprentice programme has built and how supportive of an environment it all is.
“I feel as though I could reach out to any of my fellow apprentices to gain support in my boardroom journey.”
For those considering applying to this year’s Boardroom Apprentice programme, Ciara provides honest advice: “Take a deep breath and just do it. But make sure that you have the time to dedicate yourself, so that you can take advantage of everything that it offers.
“It’s opened up so many doors and opportunities for me, so I know the next round of apprentices will reap the same benefits. For example, I have a lot more confidence in asking questions – even the stupid ones because, more often than not, they’re the key ones that everyone’s thinking about.
“Don’t let your own prejudged ideas about yourself stop you from applying. Everyone has the right to be in the room and everyone is necessary for the conversations to happen.”
Applications for the 2023/2024 Boardroom Apprentice 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