Leading The Way To Board Diversity: Sheryl Miller’s Non-Executive Journey

25 years ago, Tiny Rowland famously compared the role of the non-executive director to ‘Christmas tree decorations’ – all show and no substance, and there only to make up the numbers. After a series of corporate reforms in the following years, today, things couldn’t be more different. Charged with making a creative contribution to a Board through independent oversight and constructive challenges, non-executive directors provide specialist advice, commercial guidance and invaluable strategic oversight. And just like other senior leaders, NEDs are recruited on the experience, skills, knowledge, and the value they can bring to a business. They will often also have their own individual KPIs, competing priorities, and commitments to the Board. In short, the role of a NED in today’s business climate has never been more complex. 

Despite the traditional stereotype of NEDs from decades past, today’s boardrooms are increasingly opening their doors to individuals of any gender, religion, sexuality and minority group. Indeed, as a result of successful campaigning by government-backed initiatives such as the Hampton-Alexander review, women now hold the most non-executive director Board seats across the UK’s largest listed companies for the first time ever. Nevertheless, there are many talented senior leaders out there who may have no idea how to progress into a non-executive role, or what it really involves. We spoke with Sheryl Miller, NED for Gleeson Recruitment Group and Birmingham symphony hall, to find out more about her professional journey and the work that remains to be done to diversify the boardroom. Alongside her role providing strategic oversight to businesses, Sheryl is also an award-winning business coach, entrepreneur, and author of the ground-breaking book “Smashing stereotypes: How to get ahead when you’re the only _____ in the room.” 

Sheryl Miller, NED for Gleeson Recruitment Group and Birmingham Symphony Hall

Finding her purpose 

Speaking of what first motivated her to pursue a non-executive director role, Sheryl explains, “I made the choice to leave the hamster wheel of corporate life many years ago. However, there were still things I loved about working with teams and collaborating on a strategic level to effect positive change. I also knew I loved helping leaders figure out how to succeed. I wanted to find a new challenge that incorporated these passions, and a non-executive role seemed to be a perfect fit.”

Having long been an activist for underrepresented groups, it was important to Sheryl that the NED role she chose reflected this commitment. She explains, “I wanted to be really intentional about the kind of organisations I worked with, and felt drawn to companies that were more purpose-driven, putting people over profits. My years of mentoring startups for The Prince’s Trust had a big impact on me, and I wanted to ensure that the value I was adding to an organisation was commensurate to the amount of time and energy I was putting in. When I was approached about becoming a trustee Board member for Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a focus on diversity within the community, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s allowed me to bring together all of those strategic, commercial and change management skills and use them to make real positive change.”

Giving back 

Whilst making her mark on the NED landscape, Sheryl hasn’t slowed down as an educator and advocate. Last year, Sheryl spoke at the GRG Executive Search Annual Women In Business Event about topics such as the benefits of mentorship for female leaders, and at this year’s event on November 17th, she’ll be discussing the challenges and opportunities related to pursuing a non-executive position. Sheryl believes that such events are vital to encourage others to gain the confidence to take advantage of opportunities like the ones she herself has enjoyed – particularly members of minority groups. She notes, “From the many discussions I’ve had over the years, it’s clear that even individuals that have held very senior positions in companies and have been in the upper quartile in performance reviews often still have doubts that they’re experienced or qualified enough for a NED role. I believe part of this stems from years of being interrupted and battling to be heard in meetings and boardrooms. There’s also quite a bit of anxiety surrounding how to cope with being in ‘someone else’s’ boardroom.” She adds, “For others, they’re simply unsure how to find their first NED role while working full-time, or how to go about applying for positions that often aren’t even advertised.”

Diversifying the Board

This year’s Parker Review revealed that 89 FTSE 100 companies met the target of having at least one director from a minority ethnic group on their Board by the end of 2021, and that much of this diversity comes from minority ethnic NEDs. This is a trend that comes as no surprise to Sheryl: “There are so many talented people from minority groups in organisations who may have left – or are in the process of leaving – because they’re so tired of battling obstacles and trying to break the glass ceiling. This is talent that still has much to offer and can inject a different perspective into organisations, making them the ideal individuals to take on a NED position. For companies that want to do the right thing and diversify their leadership but don’t have the Board vacancies, it’s also an ideal way of gaining diverse representation at the top of an organisation.”

However, Sheryl cautions, organisations must be willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk: “Businesses need to truly be passionate about diverse representation, rather than simply hiring ethnic minority NEDs simply to tick a box or meet targets. Diversity at the top is proven to help attract people from minority groups apply for roles within a business, as well as feel as though they have a real chance at progression. It can really help to shift mindsets and perspectives.” In addition, Sheryl also notes that although great progress has been made on diversity, the work is far from over: “Since the FCA’s ruling on diversity on Boards, it’s clear the landscape has changed for the better. However, NED roles remain less visible and largely unadvertised in comparison to other senior positions, meaning the temptation is always there for organisations to maintain the status quo rather than strive for diversity of thought and opinion. We mustn’t be complacent – there’s still much work to be done.” 

On Thursday 17th November, we’ll be holding an event for senior leaders dedicated to ‘The Journey To Non-Executive Director’. Sheryl Miller and other speakers will be reflecting on their own professional experiences, and offering advice and guidance to others considering pursuing a NED role. For more information about our executive events, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me on helenschwarz@grgexecsearch.com

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