Maria da Cunha: Prioritise your area of expertise and do what interests you
On graduating from the LSE Maria started her career as a competition lawyer at Hogan Lovells. She moved in-house to Lloyds Bank when her two children were toddlers. Her next move was to British Airways as a competition lawyer where she soon went on to become Head of Legal. She took on a variety of different roles whilst still being GC, in Government and International Affairs, Economic regulation and then for the last 8 years she became Head of Human Resources and Industrial Relations. She combined this with 8 years on the BA management board.
Then, having spent 15 years in the same industry, she thought she needed more breadth and about 4 years ago Maria started to look for NED roles.
How Maria went about getting her first role it
- Maria started by making a list of businesses she was interested in and a list of those she didn’t want to do. You are committing a considerable amount of time to these types of roles – make sure it’s something that interests you.
- Then she assessed what value she could add to these businesses (excluding her legal skills) which she felt would be in the following areas:
- Transformation change and disruption
- Media and coms/crisis management experience
- Regulatory and international experience
- Government interaction
Forget your list of deals. Think more about your areas of expertise whether it is digital, cyber, sector specific …. This is what you should include in your CV.
You need to put the leg-work in. Use your network. Talk to Chairs/SIDs and other NEDs. Get the support of your boss and colleagues.
Be aware of the time commitment. Whilst still working at BA, Maria spent many a weekend reading the board pack etc.
The first board Maria was appointed to was at De La Rue (the security company which prints currency and passports and has contracts with many different countries.) She felt the skills she brought to the board room were:
- International experience
- Constructive challenge
- Team work
A year later Maria took on a second role for a not-for-profit organisation in the social care sector, for people with learning difficulties, which was very different but where she could really make a difference.
Very different skills are needed when working in the charity sector rather than the commercial sector. Charities need real hard business experience and can require you to be much more hands on and therefore charity board roles can be more time consuming. The skills needed around the board table itself and in relation to governance are not very different, but it is the work behind the scenes where things can differ significantly. Much more time is required coaching young trustees or sitting on other committees, talking to the CEO or HR directors, all of whom are likely to have less experience and resources than you are used to in the corporate and City world. You don’t get the same level of support from the company secretary either. There also tend to be fewer meetings which can make it harder to keep across what is going on. From a people perspective those working in the charity sector are generally very enthusiastic but less commercially aware.
Things to consider when presenting yourself to others when launching yourself into the NED world
Maria asked herself what the pillars were that defined her as a person, such as teamwork, collaborative influencing, communication, all vital skills on a board which are bread and butter to any lawyer. Most lawyers will have people management experience through managing a practice area, developing talent, appraisals, building and making teams coalesce quickly or bridging between different teams etc.
Do you have any particular sector experience? For instance, international experience is useful for companies growing and expanding overseas. Think about the kinds of clients you are involved with. Governance experience is vital. Compliance. Do not though focus on that alone as boards will also have their General Counsel and external lawyers to seek legal advice from.
Deconstruct your practice. Be clear about the areas you want to avoid as well as those you enjoy but don’t rule out too much. You just need to be interested enough in the business to commit 3 years to it.
Was it hard to convince the Chair at De La Rue that your experience was relevant?
It was actually the headhunter that Maria had to convince. That can be quite hard as they have a tendency not to think particularly creatively. She tried to think about the boxes they would put her in and then how she could persuade them to the contrary.
She made a list of all the executive search firms and got in touch with and saw all. Out of a long list there were about 2-3 firms who actually understood her and remain in touch to this day – still sending through stuff.
Headhunters are probably the biggest obstacle to overcome in this process, so you need to make it easy for them. Point out the obvious.
- Tell them what sectors you are interested in.
- Lawyers are well disposed to get to grips with a new business, with a natural curiosity and an ability to absorb the data quickly. Remind them of this.
- Illustrate your commerciality. There is a consensus that lawyers sit on the fence and don’t take a view. Persuade them that you can make judgements on the best path to take. Find examples of where you have taken calculated risks.
Are there any courses, seminars etc that Maria found useful?
It is important to be comfortable reading the accounts and financials, particularly if you find yourself on an audit committee. Keep yourself up-to-date.
Places to check are the Institute of Directors, PwC who run a series of workshops targeted at NEDs. Fidelio Executive Search also runs a programme for prospective NEDs.
Being on a board gives you a more rounded view. You get to see things from a different perspective, from the investment point of view. There can be a lot of cross fertilisation which helps a lot in the executive job. Being an adviser has actually helped her.
Lawyers’ soft skills are all there, building consensus, advising vs challenging.
Have there been any surprises being a director?
Being the recipient of paperwork makes you much more appreciative of the role a company secretary plays.
A really important lesson to understand in any non-executive role, is that you do have to plough through a lot of guff to get to the nub of the problem, particularly at the beginning. Keep digging and trust your instincts. It has been interesting to observe that with a balanced board working in unison, you make better decisions and you can learn a lot from that.
What has your greatest learning curve been?
Probably dealing with activist shareholders and keeping the investor base happy. Hadn’t appreciated how complex a problem that would be.