Priya Guha MBE: “We’ve got the path to non-executive roles slightly wrong.”

Non-executive directors

4 min read

Priya Guha MBE holds a portfolio of non-executive roles, including at UK Research & Innovation, Reach plc, and the Digital Catapult, and the former diplomat is now a venture partner at Merian Ventures, which champions investing in female-led businesses. Here, she shares how boards can foster innovation and why we’ve all got the non-executive career path the wrong way around.

Looking back, what was the most defining moment of your career?

Being appointed as the UK Consul General in San Francisco. Having the opportunity to immerse myself in the Silicon Valley ecosystem made me want to stay in the world of technology rather than that of diplomacy – so I decided to switch tracks and step out of the Foreign Office.

Which female leader that you’ve worked with has inspired you? Why?

I think it’s incredibly important to have role models and people that you look up to; but thinking back to my diplomatic career, there were very few senior people, particularly women, whom I could directly relate to. This was probably a consequence of the fact that women had to resign upon marriage in the FCDO until 1972. Nearly all had dissimilar backgrounds to me, their life experience was markedly different, and they were pretty much all men. Recognising this, early on I decided to take individual traits I admire in people and sort of collate them into a kind of jigsaw puzzle of the most admirable traits I had come across in people.

What makes a great board member?

  1. The ability to listen carefully to those around the table and build off their contributions to provide an insightful perspective. Particularly those who speak more quietly, or who may feel they’re in the minority.
  2. A certain emotional intelligence that allows you to read the (board) room so that you understand not only the words being articulated, but the sentiment behind them. It gives you a much richer understanding of others’ contributions, and can hopefully allow you to pre-empt situations where people can react negatively if that emotional aspect isn’t being picked up in the room.
  3. The skill to navigate complex situations to achieve an outcome that all parties feel is acceptable. The diplomatic service was great training for this – you take something as complex as an inter-governmental agreement; finding something that everyone can sign up to is a fantastic achievement.
  4. A way of speaking that is concise, easy to understand, and constructive. Tone and body language matter a lot.
  5. Being equipped with board papers that make clear what the ask of the board is and the context in which the paper is set. When this isn’t displayed upfront, board members can waste time trying to figure out what they’re meant to do rather than the discussion that needs to happen.

“Tone and body language matter a lot.”

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If you could make one challenge to your peers, what would it be?

I think that we’ve got the path to non-executive roles slightly wrong. Typically, a career path usually plays out in climbing a career ladder and reaching the pinnacle of your senior leadership and C-suite experience and from there you choose to retire from those roles and take on a portfolio of non-executive roles.

“I think that we’ve got the path to non-executive roles slightly wrong.”

I think there’s a different route: why not embrace a career stage of non-executive roles, before moving back into FTE roles? Thinking about my own situation with two teenage boys, doing the portfolio work has been great - not only is the work interesting and rewarding, but I also get to own my time and balance my professional and family lives. Later, once they are older and move out, I could go back into FTE roles armed with my non-executive experience and the fact that I won’t have the same responsibilities at home means I can do the kind of global jobs that may have a more intensive schedule. So, I would challenge my peers to question stereotypes around the way we think about our careers and when taking on non-executive roles makes sense.

You live and breathe the world of innovation. What do organisations find hardest when trying to innovate? And what’s the key to success?

For larger organisations, the problem is that you have existing revenue models that are proven, and an organisational structure and processes that support that stream. If you then come in with a left-field idea you need to give it the space to be proven. Often, however, such ideas end up either being deprioritised as there isn’t an immediate route to revenue or getting swamped by processes designed to serve a very different business model.

To get innovation right, the organisation needs:

    1. A genuine self-awareness of where its structural and cultural inhibitors could be. It must then proactively create an environment for innovation to occur without being stymied by these. Of course, for larger organisations the opportunities that come with innovation are huge because of the sheer scale of what they can achieve when compared to the impact that a start-up can have.
    2. To re-examine the expectation that innovation will always happen in-house; you should be open to external innovation. Whether through partnership or investment, companies should look at the most exciting innovations in their sector and find ways to bring these into the organisation.
    3. Board members who proactively look ahead and bring in outside experiences to the boardroom discussion. If you’re not steeped in the world of innovation it can be hard to know where to start. My advice is simple: listen to podcasts, attend events, and engage on future trends; whether related to the economy, technology, or geopolitics it will ultimately help you to do a better job.

“If you’re not steeped in the world of innovation it can be hard to know where to start.”

And lastly… what role do nominations committees and their chairs play in choosing leaders whose values match those needed for business to be a force for good, for society and the planet?

Nominations committees are looking at what the organisation needs in 5-10 years+ time. People are at the heart of every organisation, so if they don’t identify the right people with the right skills and values they’ll end up creating a huge problem for the future.

“If they don’t identify the right people with the right skills and values they’ll end up creating a huge problem for the future.”

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