Moni Mannings: Portfolio Life During and After Law – a BCKR Success Story
Moni sees her career has having two halves. The first half being a traditional legal career, starting in the banking department at Clifford Chance, followed by 6 years as a partner at Simmonds and Simmonds and then to Dewy Ballantine where she was their first UK partner hire. In 2000 she left to set up the banking department of Olswang and within a year was asked to head up their main corporate department, which delivered half the firm’s revenue and came with a seat on the board. The financial crisis followed swiftly thereafter, and she had to restructure her department which meant a 15% cost reduction i.e. people. Over the next 13 years of her management career, as a law firm board member, she was part of a team that implemented 3 changes of CEO, 4 acquisitions and 2 further rounds of redundancy. It was all about running things and being involved in a business.
Finally, in 2016, after 30 years Moni decided to leave law altogether. She was lucky to be invited to become COO of Aistemos, a data analytics start-up for which she had zero experience. She stayed there for two year and then launched fully into the second half of her career in the non-executive arena.
The transition came about with a lot networking. A bit of luck too, and a bit of planning, but mostly networking! The most important decision Moni made was to start her plural non-exec life while still at Olswang. It genuinely benefits both the firm and the individual.
In 2011 she took on two not for profit roles, one as a non-exec at the SRA and one as a trustee on a small charity board. The SRA role was particularly helpful going forward, since the SRA and her committee had a strong executive team so she had to learn to be non-executive. After that, she could demonstrate that she had non-executive experience when it came to her board CV. Smaller charities, with no executives, do not offer that evidence.
In 2014 Moni took on her first commercial non-exec role with Polypipe at time of its IPO and was asked to chair the RemCo, having no experience of industry or Rem.
How Moni built her portfolio in those 3 years
- Motivation: she spent time thinking about why she wanted this new career and for Moni, after 30 years as a lawyer, she just wanted to work differently, to get closer to business, not further away. Think hard as you will be asked, and you need to be able to answer with authenticity. How you come across matters so spend time working it out. She was still a partner at Olswang, and she believes that worked in her favour as there tends to be bias/prejudice against you if you are not in role.
- Networking: she joined a number of different networks; they will not necessarily give you a job, but they do expand your circle of contacts. Reach out further; FT NED Club; Winmark, WoB and the Professional Boards Forum; and genuinely and relentlessly follow up every contact and opportunity. Ask for advice and when you do so, often comes an opportunity. People are open with their time and it is important to let them know who you are, what you’re good at, and that you are looking and available; the process works such that headhunters etc regularly contact people they’ve met for recommendations of who to approach for roles. This keeps you live with the headhunters.
- Getting help writing her board CV: it is very different from writing an executive CV. Moni attended a Board CV masterclass from WoB (BCKR also runs CV workshops). The value is that it teaches you the whole way of viewing your executive career using language that resonates with boards. It is not just the bit of paper at the end. You need to look at your career through the NED lens (e.g. partnership promotion panel = nominations committee; in-role impact = oversaw 3 CEO changes). (Moni has provided her original CV template which BCKR can forward on request.)
- Headhunters: it is really important that they know who you are, which is easier said than done. The best way is to be introduced by one of their clients. But be aware – they are not career advisers. Treat any ‘chat’ as a pre-interview – so prepare well and be able to answer the following questions:
- Why do you want to be a NED?
- What did you deliver?
- What were the challenges you were asked to deliver on?
- Why do you think you’d be a good non-exec?
You have to do all of the above consistently – always keeping your network warm. It is very hard to get airtime with the headhunters. You need to feed them with nuggets they can use to sell you. Think about how you present yourself – in the same way you think about a pitch for business.
What do boards and chairs look for in NEDs (apart from sector experience)?
Commercial acumen; financial literacy; being able to articulate thoughts in business language; an ability to view things through a wider lens.
Lawyers thrive on complexity and ambiguity; they have a knowledge and understanding of risk; they have the personality trait of courage to challenge constructively; they have intellectual flexibility to think laterally beyond their own expertise. It is your broader business experience that will help you thrive. Articulating your understanding/experience of dramatic changes in market conditions; internal changes; your responsibility for P&L etc can be useful in speaking the language of the board room.
Unfortunately, headhunters want to put people in boxes. You have to give them a box to put you in, but then be broader than that in what you show them you can offer. Boards do not like single skills.
But things are improving. There are not enough people in the board room who think like lawyers, absorbing complexity and finding a route through it.
How did you get your first roles?
SRA: Moni was approached by a headhunter and on this occasion, she was ready to say yes.
Polypipe: She had joined the Professional Boards Forum and had followed up with various coffess with those she met. This meant she had been chatting to one of the chairs. She went on a long list as a result this conversation – a year later. A headhunter phoned her to enquire about the role and Moni later learned that that chair, Alan Thompson, had asked for her to go on the list. Despite having no experience at all she got the role. Alan, by now Chair of Polypipe, later said that he wanted someone unfamiliar and smart who knew the rules and would be good for their RemCom. He already had plenty of people who knew the business.
It was easier to get the next role once she had Polypipe. Moni had been telling people she was looking for a charity role in children, social care, social mobility and that is when the role at Barnardo’s came along. There was much more complexity in this institution than in Polypipe, a £350 million charity with 8,000 staff and 22,000 volunteers. Despite it being a volunteer role, Moni sees this as akin to a corporate non-executive role in terms of responsibility, challenge and fulfilment.
Other roles have come about through assiduous contact with headhunters – continuously updating them on changes in her career.
Cranfield: Her role here came through BCKR! BCKR’s first direct approach for a non-exec role. It is an unusual university which has helped in other roles – being able to talk about relationships with other industries.
How do you characterise the bias against lawyers?
The stereotype is that lawyers are uncommercial; essentially narrow; pedantic; can be hired by the hour so not needed. This part is changing with the focus now on diversity which includes backgrounds and mindset so there’s more opportunity to push the ‘think differently’ concept as part of the diversity debate.
Are not for profit roles important in the non-exec journey?
Yes, especially when there is an executive team, so you are learning the non-executive way – ‘nose is in, fingers out’ . People are buying you as a non-executive person. They want to know what you are interested in, why type of person you are. All roles you take on demonstrate this.
Is there value on the FT Non-exec course?
It shows commitment to the path you want to take and may fill in knowledge gaps. Moni has not done the course, but nonetheless sought to fill-in the gaps in the areas she felt she lacked knowledge by other means, e.g. the PWC course on Accounting principles for non-execs. Doing the FT course doesn’t in itself help you achieve the role, but may be good for your confidence.
How do you respond to headhunter’s sigh as you tell them you are a lawyer?
Inhabit your own board CV so you can defend your approach to the non-exec world; the emphasis needs to be within yourself; review what you’ve done through a different lens. Do not lead with your legal attributes.
Did you have a coach?
Not one person, but she genuinely sought advice and still asks for outside input for many.
How did you get the role with the data analytics company?
An ex colleague and former partner said “Come and join me”, and she was leaving the law anyway. Moni said yes in part out of insecurity and because of seeing it as the furthest thing from being a lawyer. It turns out that being COO is doing everything that the CEO and CFO don’t want to do. You fail all the time and take regular decisions on what’s ‘good enough’. It certainly gets rid of the idea that you have to have the absolutely right answer. Those two years were much more valuable than doing any of the courses. She left because she got the Barnardo’s role.
Now that you are looking to refresh your board roles – what matters to you?
The people who are on the board, culture and values; keeping her portfolio broad. It is important now that there is a career path in what she is doing so opportunities to be SID or chairing a committee will play a part in her choices. Women predominantly get their chairs from within, so she’s aware of that. Social purpose matters more now than it did before; will she make a valuable contribution to society?