April 30, 2022 Admin

How the Boardroom Apprentice boosted Laura Bradley’s confidence

The Belfast Philharmonic’s Choir’s General Manager Laura Bradley had been working within the arts sector, focusing mostly on arts charities, when she discovered that she could offer more.

To achieve that aim the 36-year-old applied for the Boardroom Apprentice programme to expand her experience and build confidence.

“My qualifications are in strategy so I thought it would be a good opportunity to use my skills to serve, while also developing my skills in leadership and oversight,” she explained.

“It’s really important that boards have different voices and I thought being involved in the decision-making process and steering of an organisation would be an interesting way of serving within the community.”

Often finding herself caught in a loop of needing experience to gain experience, Laura was successful in her application for the 2018 Boardroom Apprentice Programme.

“If you’re looking at a board application, they’re after experience in serving on a board – which is a bit circular,” Laura said.

“When I saw the programme being advertised, I’d only actually recently moved back home from England. I was looking for a job and looking for something to do with myself to get back into the life of Northern Ireland.

“The programme seemed like a great way to transition into serving and volunteering in a way I thought would be meaningful,” she explained.

The Boardroom Apprentice was founded in 2017 by Eileen Mullan and is a 12-month unique board learning, development and placement programme which enables those who would like to serve on a public or third sector board to learn and gain experience in a safe way before taking that step.

During Laura’s boardroom placement, she shadowed The Rainbow Project NI, based in Belfast, which works to promote the health and wellbeing of the LGBT community and their families in Northern Ireland.

“You select three boards that you’re interested in serving on and the reasons you’re interested”, explained Laura. “As a Queer person being on The Rainbow Project’s board was important to me.

“It was something that I was really passionate about, which is important when you’re doing that kind of work and learning – that it’s meaningful to you.”

While recognising the need for formal training and support for those wishing to become members of a board, the Boardroom Apprentice also focuses on upskilling and each candidate is required to attend a number of set learning days.

“There was a focus on skills you may not be experienced in, such as finance and governance which gives everyone the confidence to feel able to ask sensible and substantive questions in both shadowing and as you go on to serve on a board yourself,” she explained.

“Upskilling in terms of governance meant understanding the responsibilities. That’s really important, as a board member. It’s not just about having the right skills but about having the right mindset.”

Laura said that some of the tasks helped overcome what she perceived as personal weak spots.

“I’m still not a natural networker, but Eileen had us go and talk to someone we didn’t know for five minutes,” she explained.

“It was surprising that it did build my confidence in dealing with people who I hadn’t met before and speaking about things that I wasn’t always prepared for.

“It was good to come away from the programme and think ‘Yeah, I actually have developed those sorts of skills.”

While boosting her skillset, Laura had the opportunity to attend a range of social events as a representative of The Rainbow Project’s Board, such as an event at the Ulster Museum to celebrate their work, at the time, on Outing the Past and the LGBT History Project.

“The board was really good at inviting not just the usual board members, but also inviting myself to events they were asked to attend”, expressed Laura. “There was a real feeling of inclusivity.”

Since completing the programme, Laura has gone on to become the Vice Chair of Kabosh Theatre, a Belfast based theatre company that aims to transform our understanding of who and where we are.

“I had actually spoken to Kabosh just before the pandemic and then everything went on hold for a little while. I shadowed them in December 2020 and then started on the board during the next meeting”.

Laura revealed that she wasn’t a member of the board long before her fellow members recommended her to become Vice Chair when the position became available.

When reflecting on her experience, it’s the major boost in confidence and reassurance in her skills that has remained with Laura.

“As somebody who would consider themselves as neurodiverse, and who definitely has issues around anxiety and confidence, it was really important for me to come out of the programme being able to apply for positions and knowing that I had that backing behind me.”

Recent years have seen inclusivity becoming increasingly important within organisations and it was an element to board work that Laura was quick to shed light on.

“I’m particularly keen on making sure that disabled people, or people with mental health issues, or people who are neurodiverse do put themselves forward to the Boardroom Apprentice Programme. It’s not always clear from board applications that the role can be adapted for whatever it is you may need,” she said.

“I think it’s really important that people put themselves forward and, if necessary, advocate for themselves.

“I know that can be very hard but going through the Boardroom Apprentice Programme should be able to help you with that because it discusses how boards usually work and provides experience in the boardroom, so you can see what would make for helpful adaptations.

“For Kabosh, I was at a governance conference recently and Jo Verrent who is a Director of Unlimited, a disability-led arts organisation, was talking about the range of adaptations that they had made to make sure that their board was as inclusive as possible. I think that’s something we absolutely need to think about in the future.”

Laura believes that more should apply for Boardroom Apprentice.

“Everybody’s perspective is valuable. Everybody’s background is valuable, no matter where you’re coming from,” she explained.

“The most important thing to have is a will to serve in your community and a passion about something in your community that needs changing or needs support. If you’re not confident or worried about your skills, the programme can help you with that.”

Applications for Boardroom Apprentice are open until May 24, 2022.