Funke Abimbola’s deep commitment to diversity and inclusion permeates all areas of her work. A practising solicitor who also has legal and financial leadership responsibilities, she is General Counsel and Head of Financial Compliance for Roche UK, advising the company on a wide range of matters linked to business strategy and growth. Funke has served on number of boards over the years and currently is a senior advisory board member for Aspiring Solicitors, she has kindly agreed to share her knowledge and experience to date, on being a board member.
1. Can you tell us more about your experience of working on boards?
I currently hold several board positions within the diversity space supporting various aspects of improving diversity within the work place and across society as a whole. The focus of my board positions ranges from improving gender equality, race diversity, social mobility to maximising the potential of young people. The consistent aim is to level the playing field so that talent alone determines outcomes. My input as a board member includes providing overall strategic vision and direction as well as supporting the aims of the various organisations by tapping into my personal network where appropriate.
Some of the organisations that I support garner the contributions of a large number of people. A good example is my board membership of Aspiring Solicitors, an organisation involving approx. 19,000 people and the largest platform dedicated to improving diversity within the legal profession.
2. How did you make it to the board? What other positions have you held?
I made it to the board because I started actively campaigning to improve diversity across a range of diversity strands a number of years ago and through this gained a lot of visibility and prominence. As a result, I was initially invited to become a board director of City Growth Luton, an economic regeneration project, over 10 years ago. The project was funded by the government with the specific aim of improving employability across the Luton area. I was the only female board member. Other board level positions that I have held have included being part of the board of governors of a large, further education college in London which also involved being a member of the finance and property committee, overseeing (amongst other things) a significant expansion of the college’s premises over a period of time.
3. Does being a good executive director directly translate into being a strong board member?
Not necessarily. Non-executive directors are truly independent of the organisation and should not be distracted by operational, day-to-day issues. So, ironically, being a good executive director could actually stand in the way of maintaining this independent thinking. The overall mindset of a board member is fundamentally different – you are basically part of the extended governance framework for the organisation and need to constantly challenge the executive directors as someone who is not employed by the organisation as an executive director. It is a unique and essential role in terms of keeping executive board directors accountable.
4. What do you think can be gained from an MBA that specifically prepares you to work with, for, or on the board?
An MBA will give you the foundation that you need to understand how an organisation should ideally run including what can go wrong and how to recognise and mitigate different types of business risk. This is always good preparation for a board level position.
5. What are the three most exciting reasons to work on a board?
– To gain experience and insight within an organisation that you might not have the opportunity to otherwise.
– To extend your network of contacts even further, especially as board members get ample opportunities to attend business events.
– To shape and influence the strategic direction of an organisation, maximising your impact within it.
6. Can you tell us more about working on a board – what it entails and who you work with?
All my board positions are voluntary and part time. My roles involve varying levels of time commitment with some organisations meeting more regularly than others. The actual role itself varies depending on what the organisation does. For example, as a board member of Aspiring Solicitors, a huge part of my role is providing tailored leadership mentoring, sponsorship and coaching for a black, female future lawyer annually as well as driving and shaping the strategy of the organisation and championing the organisation’s goals across a range of different fora. Aspiring Solicitors’ board aims to meet 3 times a year. By contrast, whilst my board membership of Women in Law London (a large, 2400 strong network established to support career progression for women lawyers) also involves providing strategic input for the organisation, a large part of my role includes an advocacy role with external stakeholders including the Justice Secretary and the Law Society. Our aim is to meet at least twice a year.
7. Do you have any anecdotes that you would like to share about your board experiences?
The main thing I would say is that, because a wide range of very different personalities can be part of the same board membership, this can lead to some interesting discussions at meetings!
8. If you’ve worked in different sectors on boards, were there any noticeable differences?
I have only ever served on boards of third sector organisations who do not have commercial profit as their bottom line. However, in common with all organisations, ensuring good governance is the bedrock of being a board member.
9. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing traditional ‘board culture’ today?
‘Group think’ can be a real issue with the associated danger of board members seemingly blindly following each other in their decision making without taking a step back to take individual responsibility for their own role.
10. What advice would you give someone who wanted to work their way up to board level?
Perhaps start small and work your way up – for example, volunteering on a small local initiative or being a school governor at a small primary school would be a really good way of ‘cutting your teeth’. This would go a long way to demonstrating your ability as a board member whilst also developing the much needed mindset to be successful in this role.
11. What personal/professional qualities do you believe are necessary to develop if you want to become a successful board member?
A good understanding of overall governance is helpful given that board members are generally holding executive board members accountable for the compliant running of an organisation. The ability to demonstrate strategic agility and strategic thinking is also key as this is core to having a vision beyond the day-to-day operational concerns that are the focus of the executive board members. Lastly, a passion and genuine interest in what the organisation does is essential – it would be difficult to see how you could do a good job as a board member without this.
12. There is currently a lot of focus on board diversity. Do you think that having high levels of diversity is always a good thing, or can too much diversity hinder the work done by a board?
Given that diversity of thought truly is essential for driving innovation, in theory, there can never be too much diversity. However, embracing change is never easy and this is what being truly diverse entails. Like anything, though, success is assured with self awareness and proper management of the situation from the outset (including effective change management), all against the backdrop of really embracing and celebrating differing backgrounds and experiences.
Many thanks to Funke for agreeing to conduct this interview and for sharing all these excellent insights.
Listen to Funke’s TEDx talk on the art of achieving: Climbing Mountains Talk
You ca follow Funke on Twitter @diversitychamp1
Link to Funke’s personal website