IF THE stereotypical description of a non-executive director tends to involve the words "male", "old" and "grey", then at least one boardroom regular in the region is challenging that image.
Lucy Winskell, 45, is not only unusual in that she is neither male nor on the cusp of retirement. She has also never run a company herself nor, indeed, held an executive position in a business.
Instead, a lifetime in the law profession has generally seen her expertise in litigation and licensing issues called upon by company executives grappling with a particular problem, only to make a sharp exit from the boardroom once it is resolved. She said her commercial colleagues at Sintons pride themselves on their long-term commercial relationships with clients – and that role as trusted advisor was something she wished to emulate.
Ms Winskell is now a familiar face around the boardroom table in a non-executive capacity. And it’s a role she clearly thrives in.
She summarises the non-exec function as playing the part of a "critical friend", and identifies the key characteristics of a good non-exec as being an independent and critical thinker, having the ability to challenge constructively.
Having served on the national executive committee of the Law Society and chaired the Children’s Foundation in Newcastle, Ms Winskell’s first formal non-executive appointment came in 2005. A former colleague from her Durham Business School MBA flagged up an opportunity to join the board of the North East Regional Investment Fund (NERIF) and she successfully applied for the role.
"I wanted the skills I had been taught from the MBA to enable me to have an even greater understanding of my clients’ firms, and to really understand the business pressures facing them," she said.
She enjoyed the NERIF role so much that she went on to take on other appointments at the Darlington Building Society and as deputy chairman of Business and Enterprise North East. She also recently joined the board at Government Office North East.
Ms Winskell jointly heads the Licensing and Gambling Department at Sintons with her partner, Sarah Smith, and says they never know from day to day what challenges are going to be raised by clients.
She admits to spending a good chunk of her weekends familiarising herself with paperwork ahead of the next board meeting. But she admits there is no guarantee about how much time a non-exec must invest in the organisations they are involved in.
"The role at the Darlington started as a day a month," said Ms Winskell. "That was fine when things were good but when the industry went into free-fall for a time, that was no longer enough."
The Darlington was not immune from the problems in the financial services sector during the recent crisis and Ms Winskell says playing a part in helping it come through successfully has been hugely rewarding. In particular, the challenges facing the society involved implementing a voluntary redundancy programme plus the need to appoint a new chief executive.
"That’s when you really test the measure of the board and the executive, non-executive and staff there were outstanding," she said. "Both the outgoing chairman and the incoming chairman and all the board stepped up in difficult circumstances because we were all deeply committed to making the business work.
"At the forefront of your mind is the need to look after the members’ interests, many of whom have their life savings invested in the business, as well as the need to look after the interests of the staff, who rely on the pension fund for their long-term security."
At BENE – the business services provider which delivers the Business Link service in the North East – she has also had challenging issues to contend with. The company has a young, dynamic and ambitious executive team, she explains, which benefits from being able to call on its non-execs for support and advice. Because of the nature of the business, there are also complex issues surrounding European and government funding to be resolved, as well as multiple stakeholders to keep happy.
Meanwhile, her unpaid role at the Children’s Foundation has coincided with the challenging economic climate.
Ms Winskell admits her legal background means she brings particular skills to the boardroom. "The alarm bells start ringing with me about legal issues earlier than others," she said. "Every board talks about risk management a great deal. I hope I can spot the risks and pressure points and not be afraid to ask about them."
And she urged firms of all sizes to consider bringing a non-exec on board: "I would struggle to find a reason why a firm wouldn’t want a non-exec. At their best, they can help a business grow, turn a good chief executive into an outstanding one and bring on the effectiveness of the senior management team.
"The grey hairs and knowledge and experience of those who have helped businesses been through difficult times can be invaluable in facing what may be new challenges to a young executive team, and where that non-executive can bring experience from a national or even international perspective, the region grows stronger as a result."