‘How to feel confident taking on a NED role early in your career’ – Joan MacNaughton

‘How to feel confident taking on a NED role early in your career’ – Joan MacNaughton


Joan MacNaughton is a POWERful Women Ambassador and long-standing champion for women in the energy industry. One of our founding Board Members, she is an experienced board member across the commercial, government, academic and not-for-profit sectors and currently a Non-Executive Director for Heathrow Airport. Joan has held a number of distinguished roles during her career, including Chief of Staff to two Home Secretaries and a Deputy Prime Minister, DG Energy for the UK Government, President of the Energy Institute, Chair at the International Energy Agency and Chair of the Climate Group.



This blog is based on a POWERful Connections Breakfast that Joan kindly hosted for aspiring women in June.


I’m fortunate to have had a hugely interesting and somewhat unique career – from establishing the Crown Prosecution Service at the Home Office and negotiating international climate agreements with the White House, to implementing UK energy policy and creating a global advocacy team for large energy company. I went on to hold a number of board and advisory roles with sustainability at their heart and today the phone hardly stops ringing with new opportunities. But it wasn’t always like that.  


Attitudes to women were challenging in the early stages of my career in the 70s. I remember when I announced I was getting married and a colleague in the Home Office said “we’re terribly sorry to be losing you”. I wasn’t going anywhere, of course, and rose through the ranks. But when I eventually hung up my boots as a senior executive in the private sector, it was six long years before I got my next NED role to develop my portfolio career, despite having been on the board of a FTSE250 company.


Things are easier for women today but there are still challenges. Data from POWERful Women shows us that female representation in UK energy board and leadership roles remains far too low.


So what’s the best approach if you aspire to be a Non-Executive Director, at whatever stage in your career? Here are my seven tips.


  1. Don’t wait for the perfect solution or until you retire


Finding a NED role can take longer and more effort than you expect. I encourage people to start while they’re still working and to take on roles that add more strings to their bow.


And if you have a skill or passion to offer, then tell people. This applies at all stages of your career journey. I graduated in Physics but joined the civil service because I wanted to work with people and ideas – two things that rocked my boat. But when I found I didn’t have enough to do in one of my first jobs, I kept asking for more stimulating work, and eventually someone senior listened. I was given a project on technology law, which became the MacNaughton Review, and this led to a secondment to a Royal Commission, from which I earned the title of “midwife of the Crown Prosecution Service”.  


So identify something you’re interested in while you’re working and put yourself forward. Be bullish with colleagues about the benefits that being on a board will bring to your current role – look on it as Continuous Personal Development.


  1. Find people who will recommend you


People recommend other people – not just because they’re a friend but because they fit the profile – so it’s important to connect with those in your target area.


Throughout my career, I’ve been offered interesting roles based on my reputation and the relationships I’ve built. I was selected for the job of Chief of Staff to then Home Secretary Kenneth Clark and stayed when a new Home Secretary took over because a respected contact sang my praises. Some years later, a colleague told me that, as the first woman in that role, I gave other women permission to do certain things, like wearing trousers in the office. I had no idea I was seen as a role model.


And it’s not so much who you know but who knows YOU. For example, LinkedIn is great for showing what skills you have and for maintaining your network. 


Keep your antennae live at all times. Watch and learn and make connections with people who will help you. But also be aware of obstacles, like the boys’ club. Having a mentor or coach can help you find support and connections, and also to deal with any limiting beliefs.


  1. Learn relevant skills


At the civil service, we were encouraged to get closer to business and spend a week with a company each year. I said I wanted to take a NED position instead and chose a property company, experience that came in very useful later.


If you’re having trouble getting a NED role, find something that adds to your experience and think about the skills you need. Corporate finance knowledge is essential, for example. When I ran Prison Industries and Farms, the visionary woman who was my boss there sponsored me to do the corporate finance course at the London Business School. Sustainability, IT and digital skills are also all important for thriving in business today. Women on Boards run some excellent training. Or look at MBAs or a Masters in a subject that’s relevant and interesting to you – something that will help your overall career will also help you as a NED. 


It’s also important to build resilience and have someone you can talk to for some perspective, because sometimes you might be doing the right stuff but not in the right place. Above all, look after yourself – your fitness, your social life, your time out for personal renewal. That’s what will keep you going.


  1. Make executive search firms your friend


Search firms can help you get a role, but they aren’t interested in cold callers. So connect with them through other people, or go to events where you can network with them.


I got my executive role at Alstom Power through a search firm. Initially I said no because I was on the portfolio track but they persisted and I ended up having five wonderful years advocating for the company strategy of cleaner power, with a great budget, the freedom to build my team, and the responsibility of lobbying globally for more business-friendly but rigorous climate policy.


It was my sustainability, climate and energy experience that made me stand out for that role, but my contacts with the executive search firm were essential – they knew me and that I would fit.



  1. Get experience in the third sector


It’s much easier to get a NED role when you’re already a NED and search firms are suspicious of newbies, so a voluntary role in a not-for-profit can help you get started and also teach you important skills. And you never know where it will take you. 


The third sector is less of a closed circle. People with current business experience who will help an organisation without being paid are like gold dust. It is also extremely good at diversity compared to the private energy sector and once you are on those boards, you will meet interesting people who have useful connections. 


When I wasn’t getting any approaches for NED roles, I went out and got other things that helped my profile. I became Chair of the World Energy Council annual study of national policies and built international connections over six years. I moderated Ministerial/CEO roundtables for the top 20 energy-consuming countries at the invitation of the US Government. That kind thing gives you the exposure you need.


  1. Become a good board member


Once you get your first NED role, certain ways of working can make you an effective and highly valued member. The key thing is preparation. You can’t just turn up and talk, you must get to know the organisation and the people. So, walk the floor, find out who does what, and think about what topics you want to understand and what you can contribute in return. 


Being a member – or, better still, Chair – of a committee gives you detailed insights and staff engagement outside the full Board.  And in advance of meetings, get answers to any factual queries, so that you can focus on the important questions, like “why are we doing it this way?”.  Finally, don’t be afraid to ask a question you think everyone knows the answer to, because they probably won’t!


  1. Manage your portfolio carefully but prioritise what rocks your boat


Be realistic about the time commitment of a portfolio. Juggling roles can be difficult when you aren’t in control of dates and any fiduciary duty must have 100% attendance. You need to be flexible and prepared to give up weekends and evenings. But it’s great fun and you can take learnings from one board experience to another. 


Where conflicts arise, go with your passion. I worked on climate change with Tony Blair and have focussed on energy and sustainability since. Recently, I chaired the Environmental and H&S Committee of the Russian aluminium company En+Group, which wanted someone to help them move the needle on governance and sustainability. And now I enjoy a hands-on role on the Heathrow Airport board, supporting their commitment to Net Zero.


But if something doesn’t feel authentic, or you’re not enjoying it because of either the people or the work, then move on. I have made mistakes with roles in the past where the culture wasn’t a good fit for me. Due diligence with the company is essential. Remember that we all do much better at things we enjoy.



Finally, good luck! We need women in NED roles – it’s important for each of them but also really important for the energy sector as a whole.