Caroline Carter: a BCKR ‘graduate’ – a portfolio lawyer with a goldmine of tips, advice and experience
Caroline considers herself as a graduate of the school of BCKR. She has not followed a traditional path. After 30 years in the City, 18 years of which were as head of Ashurst’s Employment and Remuneration practice, she chose to launch herself into her second career by taking a ‘gap year’. Much against her colleagues’ advice – she started with a completely clear diary. “There is nothing like the gift of time!”
Caroline felt her skill set lent itself to board roles as she had:
- witnessed plenty of board room bust ups
- sat on the opposite side to the table as an advisor – not answerable to the shareholder
- always enjoyed networking outside Ashurst to build her client base
She joined Network for Knowledge early on, which had been established for women in retail banking and finance. She eventually joined their board and helped to build their mentoring relationships; it was a very good platform to get great speakers. Through that she met Professor Elisabeth Kelan who really encouraged Caroline to get a role in academia. One day Elisabeth called Caroline when a role came up at Cranfield University.
Caroline was very nervous about entering this very academic arena as it seemed inhabited only by postgraduate students. It was a very competitive process, but they were looking for someone whose approach was to put people issues at the forefront of debates and decisions. Caroline got the role. It was daunting being the newbie, particularly as she was the only member of the board lacking some kind of academic or other accolade.
But Caroline threw herself into the role by watching and listening and taking up every opportunity to learn more outside the boardroom. Cranfield has offered amazing opportunities to do different things and to build a different life e.g. exposure to global business leaders, meeting a huge variety of different people – from Cressida Dick to the Spice Girls – and learning about areas completely outside her general experience.
This has included flying in a prototype plane and attending many interesting lectures. Caroline is reading up on as many topics as possible. Her enthusiasm to get very involved has led to more opportunities on the Cranfield board and she is now going to become Chair of the RemCom, which will give her an opportunity to shape and make changes to the constitution.
This role has given Caroline the best platform to look at the next chapter of her life. She quickly realised that education was a passion, she has always enjoyed working with young people, and seeing them succeed – an aspect of her role at Ashurst that she really enjoyed.
Having herself come from a modest background where she was the first generation of her family to attend university, Caroline started to look at organisations involved in social mobilisation. She came across the Brilliant Club which helps to identify bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools to gain entry into top universities. When the role was advertised Caroline wrote an impassioned cover letter but stated that she was unavailable on the date of the interview. The Brilliant Club were so bowled over by her cover letter that they gave her a different role on an adjunct project, looking for gifted young people. When a role came up again on the board, Caroline applied and became a trustee. She is now hoping that she can help scale up the organisation. It has been hugely rewarding.
Caroline has recently taken on a governorship at an aspiring girls’ school that had (before she joined) managed to get eight girls work experience at Ashurst.
Her focus is now on gaining a commercial role, and her long-term goal is chairing a university.
How do you get your portfolio going?
Caroline had not applied for a job in 25 years. It is very different from pitching new business to a client. The key is translating your skills into business language on your CV. Using the right words is key – particularly as AI conducts the first round of many searches nowadays. In her case she particularly stressed the following:
- Strategic input
- Empowering others to achieve
- Transformational change
In portfolio life you need to be the enabler. Change the way you describe yourself and your skills. It certainly isn’t about your illustrious list of deals.
The covering letter should be as personal as possible, detailing specifically how you can help the organisation – they haven’t got time for you to be on a massive learning curve. Caroline feels much more responsible for making it all work. And you’ll be surprised at the impact you can have. Also, make sure you meet key people within the organisation early on and think about the impact you will have. Once you’re there, be nosey – listen but don’t meddle. ‘Nose in …. fingers out!’
Bring an independent mind to the table. You will become the trusted adviser very quickly. And remember the outside world doesn’t understand the legal world. Lawyers are seen as service providers not business makers. You will need to earn your credentials again.
Caroline feels it was helpful to focus on unpaid, not for profit type roles initially – it was a conscious choice. And she has been very lucky to have people championing her. For instance, Georgina Harvey (a former BCKR speaker) has made introductions to headhunters for her.
- Really assess the area you would like to want to be, in whether it is in the NHS, Social Housing or perhaps a government role
- Be prepared for the different approaches to interview e.g. psychometric testing is very common now, or the very rigid approach to government role interviews
- Consider making a direct approach to an organization you are interested in.
- Take care of yourself!
- Build your network
- Treat people with dignity
- Emotional intelligence is vital
- Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid question
- Make yourself attractive to inter-generational businesses. It is said that in the future, seven generations will be working alongside each other.
Is there anything in particular you lacked in your skill set when you joined your first board?
The jargon used in academia is intimidating at the beginning. It did feel like a very different and unknown world but by throwing herself into it head first it didn’t take long to get up to speed. Skilled lawyers have that experience in spades.
What was it about your cover letter to the Brilliant Club that made it stand out?
She included pertinent things about herself as a person and how she felt she could help to develop the organization. Her letter was authentic. She mentioned the road she had not taken when she was asked by her father, who was gravely ill, to give up her offer to do a PhD and to get a proper job instead. So, she went to Law school!