How can joining a public sector board enhance your executive career?

Director Community

4 min read

Key learnings

  1. Being a public sector non-executive is a great opportunity to enhance your career and have a positive impact on key parts of life in the UK.
  2. Public sector boards benefit greatly from skills and diverse perspectives of those in the private sector.
  3. You don’t need to be an insider or have prior board experience to be a public sector non-executive. 

With thanks to Jamie Carter (director at UKGI), Xenia Carr-Griffiths (former Senior Independent Director at The Royal Mint), Sir John Manzoni (former Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office), the Right Honourable Esther McVey MP (Minister of State without Portfolio and former Chair at British Transport Police Authority), and Vindi Banga (chair of UKGI) who shared their stories of being on boards in the public and private sector. 


Five myths about public sector boards

1. Myth: public sector is a narrow field

‘Public sector’ is a broad church: encompassing everything from environment to healthcare to financial services to tourism. Whatever your interest or expertise, you can typically find a public sector organisation with a board that focuses on it. As Jamie Carter, Director at UKGI (UK Government Investments), pointed out:

“It’s more helpful to imagine the public sector as an enormous waterfront that covers the whole UK economy in some way, shape, or form.”

2. Myth: public sector roles are drastically different from the private sector

The public and private sectors are far more similar than they are different. As Vindi Banga put it:

“The principles of being a good board member are the same – good governance and oversight – it's just a question of re-thinking who the stakeholders are and understanding the perspective of the government as a key stakeholder.”

For a publicly traded company, stakeholders are multiple and varied, including communities, employees, and shareholders. The public sector is like having one single shareholder in the UK Government, but still with broad stakeholders. The Government of the day acts on behalf of its citizens, and so must the board.

3. Myth: You have to be a political insider to succeed in the public sector

Public sector board members aren’t chosen for their politics or their insider track. Speaking from her experience being on the recruitment side of the table for public sector boards, Minister Esther McVey told the audience:

“It’s far more important that you have curiosity, a desire to change things, skills that will add to the board and you focus on asking the right questions.”

4. Myth: public sector boards don’t have real impact

The public sector is a brilliant place to have a personal and professional impact, and that’s what makes these roles so rewarding. How often in the commercial world, for example, do you get to figure out how to finance a nuclear reactor that will provide power for countless people?

Xenia Carr-Griffiths shared her experience, saying that:

“The impact in the public sector is on a different level to the private sector, especially if you personally connect with the mission of the organisation.”

Sir John Manzoni also advocated for how complex and interesting public sector roles are, and how skilled people in the public sector therefore need to be:

“Stereotypes about the public sector and people who work there are misplaced. The public sector is full of some of the smartest and brightest people I’ve worked with. The issues are lack of experience and a system around them that works against clear accountability and delivery.”

5. Myth: you need to have board experience already

Public sector and Arm’s Length Body boards are working on behalf of the Government and the electorate, so it’s important they are a fair reflection of the society they serve. Many public sector board role advertisements specify you don’t need prior non-executive experience. Boards can look in the round and easily include directors without previous experience.

Considering public sector board roles? Three tips for what to do next

    1. Choose the right role for you. Xenia advised the audience to be thoughtful about what role to apply for, and make sure you are in a position to make the time commitment. It can quickly grow with committee and/or chair commitments, and needs to be something you care about.
    2. Translate your private sector experience into the public sphere. The demands of leaders in both the public and private sectors are broadly similar and the skills needed overlap significantly. Your competencies and skills picked up in the private sector can be transferred to the public sector. For example, both sectors are charting a way forward for Net Zero and are concerned about making progress on ESG factors.
    3. Be a great non-executive by asking the right questions and not getting stuck in the weeds. Vindi Banga told the audience how he took up his NED role while he was still a CEO, to broaden his perspective and enhance his understanding of non-executive roles so that he could be a better executive. The biggest learning, he told us, was focusing on how he can contribute as a non-executive, not trying to do the executives’ jobs for them.

And most of all: go for it!

If you’d like to learn more about current opportunities for non-executive directorships in public bodies, visit the UK Government’s page. To register your interest for UKGI portfolio roles, email your CV to

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