Suzanna Taverne: play to your sectoral strengths and develop your network
Suzanna started her career as an investment banker at SG Warburg after which she moved into Finance and Strategy Director roles at Saatchi and Saatchi and then at Pearson. Her next move was in to the public sector when she took on the role of Managing Director of the British Museum, overseeing the Millennium Great Court project. This in turn led to a role at Imperial College, in what was effectively a COO role.
At the end of that phase she decided she didn’t want to work only in the public sector, so she decided to embark on a portfolio career which she hoped would offer an opportunity to use her not-for-profit, commercial and public sector experience. In doing so, she was clear that it was important to pursue only organisations that had a clear sense of values.
She made a plan to take on up to five positions – two or three commercial roles (her ‘earning engine’), one in the public sector and up to two not-for-profit roles. There were endless opportunities in the not-for-profit sector, but the commercial roles were harder to come by. She hoped that her previous board experience was a strength but realised that head hunters like to target candidates with a strong functional or sectorial skill set. With her mixed career experience, she didn’t necessarily tick all the head hunter boxes.
Her portfolio went on to include:
Nationwide Building Society where she was on the Board during the Financial Crisis
- NED at Ford Credit Europe. The issues surrounding Brexit have been particularly challenging
- Serving on the board of the BBC Trust
- Chairing the board at Marie Stopes International and also serving on the board of Age UK.
What has she learned about NED life?
Her first NED role (with Gingerbread, the charity for one-parent families) coincided with a huge professionalisation of the not-for-profit world. In that sector there
is now much greater clarity on the level of commitment and professionalism required; on how NEDs are recruited and on Board evaluation
Suzanna stressed that the key is to work out your strengths, what you enjoy doing and to check that the purpose and values of the organisations you work with are in line with your own. It is also essential to have a good working relationship with the Chair.
Suzanna found it important not to spread yourself around too thinly, and that it helped her to have an ‘anchor’ role (2-3 days per week). She has really enjoyed taking on Chair roles, which allows you to help shape an organisation.
As a trustee, playing to your strengths is important. You need to work out what you can specifically contribute. Be strategic. Your conversations with other board members outside the board room are equally as important to the meetings themselves. It is also important to work out how your sectoral experience can help.
How to get the role
Networking is essential.
All the things you gain from your full-time job you need to replace in your portfolio life. It wasn’t obvious to Suzanna where you got your personal development from. This is taken for granted in the day job.
- The portfolio life can be a lonely business and you need to approach it in a deliberate way. Suzanna took to reading the papers much more seriously to keep abreast current affairs and the business world.
- Surround yourself with people whose brains you can pick and talk things over with, such as recent events in companies etc. Don’t be afraid to put forward a hypothesis and see how others react. You will learn through that experience.
- Be purposeful with your diary planning.
- Lack of infrastructure can be challenging i.e. arranging your own travel, managing your diary and the lack of IT support.
- Think about what your network can do for you. They are most likely to be the source of your next job. Every interaction is of value to both sides.
When it comes to lawyers Suzanna admits to a degree of prejudice –
- Comparative lack of practical experience
- Lawyers have spent their whole professional life as an adviser not as principal
- Lawyers are employed to consider risks and provide for them which is very different from the role of a board member, where decisions have to be made in a short period of time
Saying that – Suzanna worked under former lawyer Geoffrey Howe – where he steered Nationwide through the financial crisis incredibly skilfully. He was a steady and rational person who didn’t crumble under the immense stress.
Overall, lawyers embarking on a portfolio life need to play to their sectoral strengths, develop their network and get good hard experience thinking as principals.
When you left Warburgs you decided you would prefer to be a principal rather than an advisor. Why?
I was more interested in how deals were developed than the actual transaction. However, Warburgs provided an invaluable experience of the inner workings of the board room and an understanding that good governance is key. Being part of a professional services team for a while is a great training ground for later corporate life.
How do you get started on the NED journey?
Suzanna became a trustee at Gingerbread quite early on but had had no other board role; after a while she was asked to become the Chair. Later she left Imperial College with no role to go to and began her portfolio career from a standing start. Her previous experience at Gingerbread was very important in her thinking. It helped her to do (though not to get) her first NED position.
She got started by using her existing network and stresses that a network is really only an idea until you develop it.
You can’t embark on this journey without firstly putting in the leg work and secondly having the passion to do it. Every job has to work on its own terms but doesn’t have to be your ‘dream’ job. Nobody will hire you as chair without solid experience.
What is your view on headhunters?
They are a necessary evil but ancillary to your network. Remember that head hunters work for their client so limit your expectations of them. Work out which head hunters work in the area you’d like to work in. You will learn a lot from the questions they ask you.
What does a lawyer have to do/say to convince you that they are not just an adviser?
She would want to see that you are able to contribute to the big strategic questions being faced by the organisation. Your covering letter should allude to an aspect of the business of that particular organisation. Can you be illustrate that you can help the organisation achieve its strategic goals? You really need to provide some sort of evidence that you have succeeded in doing this in other roles. For all NEDs it is about being able to articulate relevant leadership, commercial and strategic skills – so for Lawyers, contextualising your experience to non-lawyers is vital.
How do you judge an organisation that you are about to get involved with?
Talk to as many people as possible. Current and past board members – just as if you were taking out references. And do remember that organisations always put forward their best case when recruiting NEDs. So, finding the ‘fault lines’ can take some digging.