May 3, 2022 Admin

Making a difference with Boardroom Apprentice

As a self-employed person in a minority occupation, 56-year-old Karen Diamond didn’t think she had what it took to be on a board, but, thanks to the Boardroom Apprentice programme, she was proved spectacularly wrong.

Since 2017, 223 individuals have embarked on the Boardroom Apprentice journey. The programme, which was created by local woman Eileen Mullan, is designed to enable those who want to serve and to learn to be able to do just that. 

“The programme’s vision is simple,” says Karen. “It’s about bridging the gap between aspiration and reality. Boardroom Apprentice is a twelve-month unique board learning, development and placement programme, which enables people like me, who would like to serve on a public or third sector board, to learn and to gain experience in a safe way before they take that step. It seeks to enable a wider diversity of individuals to play their part within boardrooms across Northern Ireland.”

The Kilrea woman, who works as a Music Therapist, believed that, since she was in a minority occupation, she didn’t have the skills set or experience to sit on a board, despite the fact that she desperately wanted to make a difference. 

“My professional life is about making a difference,” she says, “and I wanted to get on to a board and make a difference in public life. There’s absolutely no point in sitting on the sidelines complaining about issues. I wanted to get involved and make my voice heard.

“After working in the voluntary sector, I didn’t want to have a seat on the board of a charity, albeit that I know that work is very worthy and valuable. I just wanted to have more understanding of corporate governance and so I wanted a seat on a board of a larger – preferably public sector – body.”

Whilst on the Boardroom Apprentice programme, Karen was matched to the Northern Ireland Social Care Council and knew immediately that it was the perfect fit for her.

“This was an excellent placement for me,” she says. “From the very start I was welcomed so warmly and throughout the entire programme I felt supported by everyone. I have an interest in professional regulation and it was so good to be with another regulatory body – especially during COVID-19 – when social care staff were at the frontline of delivery and when things had to be changed to meet the demands and needs of this time.

During the programme, Karen attended monthly board meetings, joined stakeholder sessions and participated in audit and risk meetings. She also took part in financial training for board members and in the initial planning and discussions around the strategic plan for the next period of time.

“Throughout the programme I attended all of the sessions, took part in the group project and prepared for and attended as many meetings as possible with my host board and with my mentor. 

“The skills that I attained during the programme were fantastic. I gained so much experience in areas such as preparing for meetings and I was able to develop my interpersonal skills in a way that would have been otherwise unobtainable. I learnt so much about how to work with others.

“Thanks to the programme, I have a much better understanding of corporate governance and I have increased my confidence to the point where I’m able to ask questions and challenge issues when I’m not entirely convinced about decisions.

“I think that one of the main areas in which I developed was in preparing for meetings. Even as an apprentice you get asked for comments, so I learnt from early on how important it is to No question was ever too silly or too small.

“My understanding of financial reporting also improved significantly. Those were the parts of reports I used to skim through because I just didn’t understand what they meant! 

“I’m very proud of the work we did on the group project. This really enabled you to understand what  can go wrong while also  encouraging you to think about what should happen and what policies etc should be put in place to support good practice.”

Karen’s success and learned experience on the board of the Northern Ireland Social Care Council has subsequently led to further board experience.

“Since completing Boardroom Apprentice, I have subsequently been appointed as a lay Non-Executive Director on the Northern Ireland Practice & Education Council (NIPEC).”

NIPEC is an arms’ length body from the Department of Health, which supports the development of nurses and midwives by promoting high standards of practice, education and professional development. It also provides advice and guidance on best practices and matters relating to nursing and midwifery.

While Karen is now revelling in her new role, she is indebted to Boardroom Apprentice for giving her the confidence to step into boardroom life.

“If you want to make a difference in society – and before you let your inner ‘I’m not good enough’ voice kick in – apply!” she says. “You will learn so much about yourself and the skills you really do have.

“The application process is very straightforward, and it really helps you to think about why you might want to get on board..

“The ‘why’ you want to be on a board is really important. It’s a waste of time and resources if you don’t know why you want to be there. It shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise or something you do because your employer sent you.

“Being on a board teaches you so much about yourself – and about others. When I looked around the room at the others who had chosen to be there, I realised that there weren’t as many of what I previously perceived to be your “typical” board people, ie, retired bank managers/school principals/high-level civil servants. Instead, it was a great blend of people from various backgrounds who all wanted to make a difference..

“The support from the programme;  and the mentor and board members on the host board was tremendous. Going forward, I know that saying that I completed the Boardroom Apprentice programme will make interviews a lot easier because I can clearly demonstrate from my experience on the programme that I have the competencies required for any role.

“Experience aside, the new friendships that I made and the fantastic and dynamic people that I met along the way were an added bonus!

“I think it is really important that, moving forward, boards – both voluntary and public – reflect our society and that the voices of those with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities etc are heard and represented.

“Thanks to the Boardroom Apprentice programme, I now believe that I am good enough to be on a board. And now, I’m able to prove it.”

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