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Lucy Armstrong Advice for Candidates applying for Public Appointments

Hello i’m Lucy Armstrong and I’m Chair of the Port of Tyne.

My background is as a venture capitalist originally spending time looking at businesses analysing what makes them tick and effectively whether we wanted to invest in them or not so from the beginning of my career I think one of the hallmarks has been curiosity in terms of what I like looking and prodding and poking around organisations and for me it doesn’t matter whether something’s a public body, a private body or not for profit body it’s groups of people with a purpose trying to achieve something. With that in mind one of the earliest both incredible training opportunities I had and personal exploration was to join the board of a high security prison. I was on the independent monitoring board of HMP Franklin at the age of 28 and boy if you want to learn about yourself you want to put yourself in challenging positions then volunteering for a public role like that is actually a perfect way to do it that duality is one of the things that public bodies often have that private bodies don’t that complexity that richness of sometimes competing objectives and that’s why I am drawn to them whilst they can be frustrating and sometimes it feels like you’re trying to operate in a straight jacket the fact that you’re doing something for the future not just the bottom line is why I find it really engaging.

As a chair of a trust port I’m sort of involved in a public body but I have been a chair of a much more centrally controlled or supervised public body when I chaired capital for enterprise in the early 2000s and one of the things I think when someone’s considering a public appointment is to understand that the public sector is by definition different from the private sector. So I think there’s something when you approach the public sector about acknowledging that the people there are talented, capable and are driving and striving to do their best, and if they’re not apparently achieving that your challenge as someone who’s going into the public sector is to understand why that might be.

Classically appointments will say you need to have been a non-exec before, well if you’ve been a non-exec before everyone has to start somewhere so actually we as a board have got to put the effort into inviting people to come for the first time so that we can coach and mentor them, but much more importantly because it’s their first appointment they ask the most important question of all, they keep asking ‘why’d you do that’ ‘why’d you do that like that’ ‘why does that work like that’ and that’s the most important question anyone can ever ask and people who are new to something who have the confidence to ask that bring incredible richness to a board, an incredible richness to an organisation because it allows the organisation to learn.

To any candidate who’s going through a public appointment process what I would say it’s a phrase we use in the northeast which is shy bairns get nowt, ask for more than is available simply on the standard public appointment if the organisation hasn’t offered you a tour ask for one if the organisation hasn’t offered you an hour with the chief executive ask for one the worst that can happen is you’ll be told no that’s not part of your process or oh we haven’t been asked that before but i would encourage you to do as much due diligence as you can don’t just rely on going to the interview and think that’s going to be it and you have to make your decision on that basis. I certainly as a chair, I would be much more interested in a candidate who comes and rings me up and says can I come around can i ask you some questions who else can I talk to rather than someone who just turns up at an interview so I would encourage candidates to be inquisitive and curious partly because they are the key skills of a non-exec.