Reflecting back on when she was just starting out on her first Board, Eileen Mullan admitted that she found the journey daunting and exciting in equal measures.
“I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, or in fact what contribution I could make.
“Often when I reflect back, I realise there was no training, no support and certainly no opportunity to gain experience before I took the step as a fully signed up board member. I knew that was wrong and I couldn’t understand why that was happening,” she explained.
For many people, their perceptions surrounding the makeup of boardroom members are often one of a number of determining factors which leads them not to apply. From not feeling qualified to lacking self-belief, having no experience, and feeling unable to fit the ‘Boardroom mould’ are common misconceptions that are the genesis of all that Eileen has and still continuously works tirelessly to change.
“I hear many times about Boards struggling to get board members when recruiting, the frequent statement is that people just aren’t interested in serving,” said Eileen whose parents owned the well-known Dolphin chip shop in Portrush’s Causeway Street.
“I know that not to be the case, my experience has been that people do want to serve, but rule themselves out for many reasons: lack of experience, being too young and not knowing what is expected of them.”
Armed with the passion and motivation to create something practical that would enable people to take their board member role from aspiration to reality, Eileen started to share her idea with Board Chairs, CEOs, Senior Civil Servants and politicians.
“I was just one woman with an idea and lots of motivation and passion but I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.”
However, Eileen soon faced a number of obstacles that left her nearly giving it all up.
“There was no money, I had hoped a pilot could be funded, but that wasn’t going to happen as Stomont had just fallen.
“So, I brought together a small group of committed individuals who were supportive of the idea and wanted to help. We met in the Boardroom at the Belfast City Hospital.
“I shared with them where I had got to in my many discussions and I offered the group three options: Firstly I stop now, and I’ll never mention this initiative again and I’ll just let it go.
“The second is that we can wait until Stormont is back up and running (this was in 2017) and see if they are prepared to fund it.
“And thirdly, I asked them to give a little bit more, do this on goodwill and get a pilot up and running and test it. They all said yes to the last one.”
After that, Eileen had a pilot programme ready to recruit in May 2017, with the programme beginning in September.
“There were 24 Host Boards signed up for the first programme and to my surprise over 200 applications. I couldn’t believe it. I sat at home with my printer that did 5 pages a minute to print out over 200 applications.
“The pilot was a huge success, so we delivered a second programme. In 2018, I had an opportunity to meet with Sue Gray, the then Permanent Secretary for the Department of Finance.
“I shared the Boardroom Apprentice story with Sue and she was struck by its aims and wanted to help. Since 2019, the programme has been receiving support from the Department of Finance.
“I never wanted Boardroom Apprentice to be something people had to pay to do. I know how it feels to not be able to afford to go on a training course. It just creates another barrier for people not to be able to take part in the way they want to.”
Boardroom Apprentice is an eclectic collaboration between the public, third and private sectors providing a wealth of skills, experience and knowledge which makes this programme an incredibly unique initiative.
Now in its sixth year, the Boardroom Apprentice has helped 223 candidates across Northern Ireland to begin their Boardroom journey.
This year’s programme offers a Boardroom Apprentice a choice of 58 host boards from across the Charity or Public Sector. They get the opportunity to be a part of a board to learn in a safe way.
Year on year, Eileen has had the pleasure of watching what was once a dream, have real tangible outcomes across Northern Ireland’s Boardroom landscape.
“We know the Boardroom Apprentice is working. The follow up tracker is showing that more than 50% of the first three cohorts are actively involved in Boards. We track them 12 months following completion, so we know what we set out to do is working.
“I’m also getting feedback from host boards who are also seeing the benefits for their whole teams and saying that our Boardroom Apprentices are opening up their eyes in terms of the things they need to be thinking about how they work to enable others to be at the table.
“I never expected Boardroom Apprentice to be where it is today. I am very proud of the small group of committed individuals who help make Boardroom Apprentice what it is. When the Boardroom Apprentices go on to realise their aspiration and serve, I couldn’t be prouder - you know you are doing something right.”
For those thinking of applying to this year’s programme, Eileen is keen for prospective applicants to ‘only apply if you want to do this for the right reasons’. Take your time with the application form, prepare the responses to the questions in advance and remember this is a highly competitive programme - your ‘why’ must stand out.
“It’s not about having a few learning days. It’s a significant commitment – same as you would have to give as a board member. The ideal applicant has to be passionate, motivated, looking at this from the position that you want to serve – not in 20 years but in the next 1 to 3 years. My expectation is that you will be on a board giving back and deploying your skills, knowledge and experience you have been gifted,” she explained.
“This is hard work. Being a board member is hard work. If you want to serve, then this programme will enable you to learn how to do just that, but you’ve got to put in the work.
“Being a Boardroom Apprentice is a gift. You get the programme as a gift with the expectation that you give it back. Being a Boardroom Apprentice is about preparing you for public service, which is about you playing your part.”
For more information on Boardroom Apprentice visit https://boardroomapprentice.com
Applications are open until May 24.