BCKR Profile – Elizabeth Holden
What boards do you sit on? My first non-executive directorship was with Great Portland Estates, the FTSE 250 commercial property developer. Alongside BCKR, I also sit on the board of YourLifeSpace, the development arm of Circle Housing and HML Holdings, the AIM listed residential block management company.
Why did you decide to become a director? After 20 years of front line M&A, I decided to rebalance life. Rather than simply take a less high-pressured legal job, I wanted instead to get closer to a variety of businesses, learning more about each of them than I could ever do as an adviser and encountering more people and organisations than I would in any single day job.
Please outline your legal career. I read Classics at Oxford and applied to Slaughter and May while there. I loved it, stayed for 20 years and became a partner shortly after the birth of my first child. I was heavily involved in recruitment, founded the firm’s support group for working parents and spent two years on the partnership board. Alongside this, I ran a huge number of deals, large and small, for all types of clients, the largest being BHP Billiton’s US$149bn hostile bid for Rio Tinto.
Was being a lawyer a hurdle to getting onto a board? When starting out, I discovered that being a lawyer, even an experienced corporate lawyer, was a significant hurdle in the eyes of too many – ‘lawyers are not asked for’, ‘we never see lawyers on shortlists’, ‘headhunters never suggest lawyers’ – but as with many misconceptions, if you ignore the assumptions and go about it determinedly, you can find people, many people, willing to listen and help constructively. These people think rather more creatively about the particular strengths of individuals rather than the labels.
How did you get your NED roles? My first role, with GPE, I got through networking, following up on opportunities that presented themselves and finding myself in the right place at the right time, in a recruitment process that had already started. I applied to a public advert for my Circle role, knowing no one in the organisation or process and a headhunter brought me into the frame for HML having found, I think, my LinkedIn profile.
Did your network help? When I decided to try for a plural life, I was told very firmly that it simply wouldn’t work out unless I built up my network and let everyone who might be able to help me, know that I was looking for NED roles. I did this, and still do, making sure that when I leave one cup of coffee, I often have introductions to others to make my network bigger. The NED network isn’t a closed shop, but you do have to work hard at it, enjoying the journey as you go.
And headhunters? It was a headhunter who first convinced me that, with work, I could build a portfolio. That same headhunter hosted the lunch where I first met the GPE chairman. Three others were involved in the referencing to get that role. And a headhunter put me into the process for HML. Others too have given me time and encouragement along the way. That said, others could be a little more open!
Why did you get involved with BCKR? when Tim asked me to get involved, and I then met Matthew and Guy, all seemed keen to make a real difference to the lot of lawyers and the make up of boards. Given the characters involved and my chosen journey, I’d have been daft not to join them.
Any interesting extracurricular activities that you’d like to share? My chickens. Easy to look after and great fun. Much more compliant than the children.