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The Boardroom Apprentice Scheme

Ambreen Shah talks to Eileen Mullan about the Boardroom Apprentice scheme

I am a trustee of two charities and I have worked with both organisations to introduce a programme to open up the board room to more diverse talent.

The shadowing programme openly recruits people with no board experience to buddy up with a Board member and shadow them as they carry out their duties as a trustee. At the very minimum the shadowees get to observe board meetings, meet other board members and grow their networks.

I deliberately took a light touch approach with the shadowing programme so I was really pleased to come across an alternative method. The Boardroom Apprentice is a programme also concerned with the increasing diversity in governance roles. Boardroom Apprentice has formalised this approach, working with a wide range of public and third sector organisations across the UK to support them to take on a Boardroom Apprentice.

I caught up with Eileen Mullan, whose brainchild this is, to find out more.

Ambreen Shah: How did the Boardroom Apprentice begin?

Eileen Mullan: I have been working with local community committees since the age of 23 but time and time again I was looking into boardrooms and not seeing someone like me, a young gay woman from a working class background, with passion and curiosity but, in those early days, I had never held a senior decision making role within public or third sector organisations.

When I became Chair of Age NI (regional charity for older people) I was struck when recruiting trustees how many applicants had no boardroom experience, but came with the motivation and passion to serve. I provided the opportunity for an aspiring board member to gain board experience with Age NI for a year. But after two years of doing this, I realised this was not enough, especially for public sector roles where you tend to find you either rule yourself out because you think you don’t have experience or knowledge, or like me, you put yourself forward with your passion and motivation but the lack of experience and knowledge rules you out. I wanted to create something really practical that enabled those who want to serve, to learn to be able to do just that. For me, preparing people to take on these significant roles beforehand is the right and responsible thing to do.

AS: What is the overall aim of the programme?

EM: The vision is simple, bridging the gap between aspiration and reality. Boardroom Apprentice is a 12-month unique board learning, development and placement programme which enables those who would like to serve on a public or third sector board to learn and gain experience in a safe way before they take that step. It seeks to enable a wider diversity of individuals to play their part within boardrooms.

Allowing those without board experience, to gain experience and enhancing their knowledge and understanding through in-depth learning and support.

AS: So if I was interested what would Boardroom Apprentice offer me?

EM: The core offer is:

  • A 12-month placement with a public or voluntary sector or charity board

  • Eight expert led learning days

  • A dedicated board buddy

By the end of the placement each Boardroom Apprentice will have a kit bag of knowledge, understanding and experience - to put themselves forward for a board position either in the public or third sector.

AS: Who can apply to be a Boardroom Apprentice?

EM: The key criteria are that you have not sat on a board before; and you have the passion and motivation to serve as a board member and a readiness to give back.

We are very clear up front on the time commitment necessary and do require participants to commit to the meeting schedule of the Host Board they are on and to the eight all-day face to face learning days across the UK, along with some evenings and weekends.

Once an application for Boardroom Apprentice is made they are reviewed by the selection panel which is made up of former Boardroom Apprentices. I have found that they have no preconceived ideas and bring their experience of completing the programme to bear. The application is not difficult; what is important is that applicants are eager to learn, motivated and passionate about serving in the future.

AS: Do I need to pay to become a Boardroom Apprentice?

EM: There is no financial charge to undertake the programme, you will have travel costs for attending learning days and meetings, but there is a significant personal cost. You need to apply to be a Boardroom Apprentice recognising fully the commitment required, with the motivation, passion and aspiration to serve. This is not dissimilar to the ask of us all as a Board Member/Trustee.

AS: What difference do you think Boardroom apprentice has made so far?

EM: In terms of outputs we have had:

  • 319 individuals embark on their Boardroom Apprentice journey

  • A follow up tracker of the first four cohorts shows that 55% of Apprentices were actively engaged in a board position within 12 months of completing the programme.

  • During 2022 and 2023 96 Boardroom Apprentices are undertaking the programme across the UK

  • 76 % of Boardroom Apprentice have been female

  • 71% of Boardroom Apprentices are under the age of 49

  • And of the cohort drawn from England & Wales, 31% are from a minority ethnic background.

  • We also know that the programme is reaching people who are currently not in paid employment and/or are longer term carers.

The cohort approach we take does mean there is ample opportunity for peer to peer learning and creating a supportive network that can last beyond the 12 months on the programme.

Commitment to the cause

The amazing thing about Eileen's efforts are the fact that she has achieved all this along with her roles as a Chair of a health trust, former Charity Chair and Non-Executive Director and governance practitioner. In 2017 she just had an idea and as Eileen said to me, it has taken self-belief, a small group of committed individuals and some pioneering host boards who have believed in her vision and wanted to help in trying something different.

Amid so much achievement, what is Eileen’s proudest moment has been to date? ‘Every time a Boardroom Apprentice gets appointed to a Board,’ she says.

Ambreen Shah is a trustee of Smallwood Trust, a foundation seeking to support women to be financially resilient and to end gendered poverty, and Charity Bank, an ethical bank that uses its savers' money to lend to charities and social enterprises.

Applications will open in the autumn for the 2024 Programme of Boardroom Apprentice. Register your interest here.

Getting on Board is passionate about making trusteeship accessible in as many ways as possible. Check out these alternative programmes and additional fantastic free resources for aspiring trustees.


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