May 3, 2022 Admin

How the Boardroom Apprentice strengthened my professional network: David Esler’s story

When 41-year-old BT Account Director, David Esler, encountered the Boardroom Apprentice programme whilst scrolling through the professional networking app, LinkedIn, he instantly knew this was the programme he had been searching for.

For David, his passion for his hometown and wanting to contribute to it, was the driving force behind wanting to gain boardroom experience, something that in his words – goes beyond just putting money in a jar.

“It’s great that the people can go out and raise money, and give money to charity, but I wanted to give a bit of myself and contribute to Northern Ireland and the community we live in.

“So whenever I saw the Boardroom Apprentice being advertised, and what it was for and how it was being run, I thought you know what, this is actually something that is being put on for the right reasons, let’s give this a go,‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”.

With just five days to complete his application before the closing date, David recalled how it was a straightforward process, unlike any other he had experienced.

“I was quite pleased that I didn’t have to draw up a CV and fill in hundreds of questions on an application form. It was essentially your normal information: name, age, sex, all the rest of it, the normal sort of stuff you would fill in. 

“There were also 3 questions about yourself, what inspires you and what you’re passionate about. This bit was vital if you don’t know why you want to do it then why would you? There has to be a reason,” he explained.

With no previous experience in a programme like this or on a board itself, David went in blind and was delighted when his expectations were exceeded almost instantly.

“Previously, I had seen different boards but I had no idea how to go about taking part in a board. The Boardroom Apprentice exceeded my expectations and it gave me a lot more confidence that it’s attainable, it’s something that you can do. 

“You don’t need to be 40, you don’t need to be retired, or you don’t need to be just leaving university.  It’s there for anyone who just wants to take part.” 

Established by Eileen Mullan in 2017, the Boardroom Apprentice is a unique board learning, development and placement programme which aims to bridge the gap between aspiration and reality for those who wish to serve on boards in the Public and Third Sectors.

Each training day throughout the year is carefully planned out to transform each candidate into well-rounded individuals with all the necessary skills, confidence and mindset that will enable them to go forward for Board positions once they complete the programme.

With training on topics such as governance, marketing and finance, David was not only able to enhance his professional skills, but also expanded his networking too, opening up his professional sphere.

“The training days taught me how to become a critical friend, just because you don’t understand or agree with something, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say something, it is just important to know the right way to go about it.

“It also helped my questioning ability because it’s all well and good to ask a question, but having the confidence to ask it without second guessing yourself, and asking it in a meaningful and constructive way.”

Throughout the 12-month programme, apprentices also have the opportunity to sit on a board, contribute to the decision making process and learn in real time what being a board member entails.

David was placed with his first choice board (Department of Agriculture) and was their first Boardroom Apprentice. 

Before they are placed, each candidate is required to pick their top three boards and why they want to sit on them, something David found to be a relatively easy process.

“I picked the boards that I actually cared about and thankfully DAERA was my first choice and it was the one that I got. It was like any other application form, it’s as hard or as easy as you want it to be,” he said.

When reflecting on his time observing the board, David felt indebted to everyone who he encountered during his time there, particularly his boardroom buddy who he revealed went above and beyond each time to ensure he properly understood everything.

“My placement was seamlessly run and was really good. It wasn’t a sit on the board and be quiet, it was being encouraged to ask questions and to participate, and actually understanding what was going on because you had that pre-brief and debrief as part of the cycle, 

“I had a boardroom buddy who was exceptionally good and he met with me before the board meeting. After the papers came out, I had a chance to read over them with him. He was a very busy guy who had an important role as Brexit was still to happen, Covid was happening and he still took the time to give me a proper debrief.”

Shortly after the programme ended, David accepted his first board position sitting on a local sports club board and has hopes when his professional career quietens down, to join a public sector board again. 

For David, despite the impact of Covid-19 hindering the ability to connect face-to-face, he thoroughly enjoyed working as a team with his fellow Boardroom Apprentice candidates, some of whom he is still in contact with today.

“We were scattered to the four corners of Northern Ireland; people from Newry, Derry, Belfast and Enniskillen,

“I think my best achievement was working with the different people on the team. I know most people whenever it comes to doing teamwork, it generally tends to fill people with dread. But the problem is, if you sit on a board it is teamwork, it’s not an individual thing as you have to work as part of a group.

“We’re all still in contact just as often as we ever were and that’s really helped improve my network”, he explained.

Five years since it was first set up, the Boardroom Apprentice still remains one of its kind and is the only free professional programme in the UK. 

“The fact that Elieen’s programme is free, shouldn’t detract from its value, it just goes to show that if you get the right people on the right course, you can get people on the right trajectory.

“The programme is very well run in the sense that it had a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a reason to exist. It has a strong plan of how to achieve its goals.”

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