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A Portfolio Career

23rd June 2021

The title for this video could just as easily be "How to secure a non-executive role" because Simone draws from her experience as a portfolio non-exec director to share advice on how to gain board experience, overcoming imposter syndrome, understand your own financial value and the benefits of being part of a supportive peer and mentor network.



I am delighted to be with Simone Pennie, this morning as part of the Ikigai series interviewing women with purpose and passion. Simone is a global finance director and portfolio non-executive director.


So I feel so privileged to get the opportunity to chat to you. We've got seven quick questions, but before we get into the questions, if I could ask you just to give me an overview of your career. So I'm the Finance and HR Director at Kyloe Partners, which is a software business that my husband and I started with another couple back in 2015. We're based in Orkney, which is quite an unusual location. And we've got about 60 staff globally. About 38 are currently in Orkney and we've got eight in America and Australia.


My background is as a finance director trained with KPMG. I've always been interested in international things and I met my husband at Heathrow Airport as we were on our way to Toronto to do an 18 months secondment with KPMG in Canada.


How cool. My business partner met her husband in Hong Kong. He was a pilot and she was on her year placement and he was a friend of a friend, he picked her up from the airport and that was it, even though she was going to meet her boyfriend there, that's another story.


I know you've had a few non-exec positions now, what would be your top tip in securing your first non-exec role?


OK, I think the key is to probably go for something that's local so that you can get a real connection. You've got to have a good interest in what that organisation's doing. I think, realistically, your first non-exec role may well be non-paid. Having said that, I was very fortunate. My first role was actually with the NHS and I have to say the NHS is a really good place to start as a non-exec, they are always looking for non-exec people. They're looking for a range of abilities and skill-sets. And there's so many opportunities and it's hard really not to feel a connection with any NHS organisation.


What do you think makes a good non-exec?


It's very difficult to be a non-exec if you're in a full-time role. And I purposely chose to create a portfolio, non-exec career for myself at most I had three or four when my husband and I started this business at Kyloe back in 2015. I then found as I became more and more involved in my own business, I had less and less time. Currently I don't have any. But as I look to reduce my activity in our own business, I will then build back up again.

That first role with the NHS what was the process to secure that role? And as a secondary question to that. What responses are more likely to make your application successful? For something like the NHS or any public sector it's a very rigid process. It's an online application. It generally is facilitated by a recruitment agency.


So you've got to go through their process. There might be a screening call once your application is shortlisted, probably only one interview and it would be a panel interview. That was one of the things that really scared me was the panel interview, especially when I've been working at the BBC for 15 years, so I hadn't had an interview in 15 years. Apply for things maybe that you don't necessarily desperately want to get just to get that practice of sending in the application and doing the interviews.


And as you mentioned, you're a qualified CA, when I was looking at your profile it's pretty impressive. So looking at that, I can't imagine that you would suffer from imposter syndrome. But you have been so honest with me. And I know that, I know that you have. How do you overcome that feeling in the boardroom?

It's an interesting question. And I guess everyone has their own level of comfort and their own confidence levels. What's been interesting is that all the non-exec roles I've done, none of them have had a connection with my prior experience of working at the BBC, and before that I worked in logistics at P&O Containers. As an accountant, yes, that experience goes throughout any organisation and that's generally what I've been recruited for, is my finance and my governance skills. There was one organisation I did feel very uncomfortable in and interestingly that was where I went in in a role and I was just on the audit committee and where I found that was really difficult is because I just couldn't get to know enough about the organisation because it was one meeting once a quarter.

And again, that's with being local. I think it's really important. That was a role in London and I was in Gloucestershire.


That's a really good point, I suppose, in terms of non-exec director induction or integration into the organisation. I had a fantastic induction for a role at the Gambling Commission.You went to Vegas? Not quite that good, but we did have a tour of betting organisations. So we were taken to high flying casinos, members only type casinos in Mayfair. We went into a bookies in Birmingham and then we went to a manufacturer of slot machines to really get a sense of what the industry was about, really getting involved in. And also, I have to say, the hospital were very good as well. And we were encouraged with a member of staff to go visit certain wards and just observe what was going on and then take that reflection back into the room and have a better understanding of having seen it in practice.


So my next question is about controversial issues. And having worked for the BBC, they were at the centre of controversy surrounding this. So what do you think women can do to combat the gender pay gap?

You have to value yourself. Number one, if you can value yourself and feel confident about yourself, you have to be realistic. But you have to you have to put yourself out there. You have to ask. You have to ask for the promotion. You have to ask for the pay rise. You have to ask whether or not I'm getting paid the same as my colleague. You have to be prepared to put yourself sometimes in a slightly awkward, uncomfortable position. But if you push yourself, if you push the boundaries, you will be, I believe you will be rewarded. It is a tough world out there, there's no doubt about it. There's a long way to go on the gender pay gap. And its got to start with the girls coming out of school and making sure when they start the job, they get paid the right amount of money at the start and they're not undervaluing themselves. Girls don't ask for pay rises. We see it. I see that within my own business, you know, it's the guys that ask for the promotion. It's the guys that ask for the pay rise, just not the women. So, it goes back to that imposter syndrome, really. It's just about having confidence in yourself and backing yourself and just understanding what your value is and putting the case forward for why you should get the promotion and the pay rise.


I know that throughout your career and for some of your non-executive roles, you have been championed or you have had someone who has recommended you or referred you. Do you think it's important to have that mentor figure?

I had a female colleague who kind of looked out for me. She was in a different division, but she kind of looked out for me. She could see that I was coming through and she gave me an opportunity where maybe others weren't going to. And she was the one who then got me onto the BBC World News Board. Interestingly, that board of directors that I worked with for five years, I was the youngest one on that board, and it was a mix of exactly female and male. And we all got along really well. We all supported each other. We still see each other 10, 15 years on twice a year. And I reach out to my male colleagues on that board for support and advice. And there is a support mechanism and you do need that. But you need to recognise that you need it, it is helpful to go and have somebody else to bounce ideas from.


You were talking about peer support, what about having someone to champion you or someone to mentor you? Is that important?

Yeah, I think all forms of mentoring and coaching. Within the non-exec role I was very fortunate that a finance director that I worked with very early on in my career at the BBC, who then subsequently moved on, for whatever reason, remember me. And actually I followed him into two non-exec roles in different organisations subsequently because he had put me forward. I think if you believe strongly in something, if you have the same kind of values and principles, you can get an awful lot of support and guidance from a mentor, and to understand how to work with our male colleagues, but also how to work with our female colleagues. And if I look back now and I'm at an age in my mid-50s where I know there's something on Channel 4 going to be on the menopause, I look back and I understand all of what's going on now with me and my body. And I look back and reflect on women of my age that I was working with. And I didn't appreciate that. And I think that sometimes where you need somebody else's experience and advice to give you to say actually, you know, think about it from their perspective.


Two quick questions to figure out. What do you love about Orkney?

Firstly, the scallops in the crab, because it's the best you can get anywhere round the country. But I think really for me, what's really interesting about Orkney is it's very understated. I think for us it was a perfect location for us to start a business because it actually fitted very well with us.

We haven't been brash and bold in terms of building up our business. And I think that quiet understatement and resilience that you get from Orcadians has really helped us with the business. And there's an element of peace and calm that comes from working in Orkney.

And I suppose I want to highlight we're going off our questions here but you don't actually live in Orkney, do you?

No, I live in Gloucestershire.

So you're not living there but yet it was the perfect place for you to start the business.

Yeah, and absolutely, and I think that definitely stood in good stead for when the pandemic hit, the staff in Oakley were already used to working with colleagues remotely. And if you weren't in the Orkney office or in the Bullhorn office in London, you were working from home anyway. So it wasn't a massive adjustment for us to make.

And last question, what is your superpower?


I'm not quite sure what you mean by superpower, but I'll do my own interpretation of the question from a professional perspective. I think my key strength that I have is that I whether it's my auditor training, whether it's from working at the BBC, is my ability to triangulate information and look for more than one source of evidence to validate things.

Now, if that wasn't what you meant by the question, my other thing is, I have a very strong self-belief. I am a very resilient person. I very much believe in doing the right thing. And I think my inner strength, my core values are kind of my superpower and the things that keep me going, get me up in the morning.

Where does that come from? I had a difficult upbringing. I've had to look after myself, but I've been very aware of others at the same time. And I think this thing about doing the right thing and making a difference and hopefully having a positive impact, which is one of the core values of Kyloe, having a positive impact on customers and our colleagues, is really very important to me. And I think that kind of belief that you can do anything if you really set your mind to it, the world is a fantastic place. There's lots of opportunity. It's us that holds us back. Nobody else.


I don't know what to say. I think a brilliant, brilliant way to finish. I've absolutely loved, loved, loved speaking to you. I can't thank you enough for your candour and your honesty and just sharing your huge experience with me.

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