Deborah Jenkins is the current Chair of the Board at NCFE, an educational charity and leading vocational and technical awarding organisation. She has held her post for 5 years, after starting her non-executive career in 1987. In addition to her non-executive work, Deborah is the Director of Trades 4 Care, a start-up Community Interest Company providing holistic support and work experience for young people interested in going into a trade, and Chief Executive Officer at The Derwent Initiative, which helps to prevent sexual offending through training, research, consultancy and public protection schemes.

She joined Kristina recently to discuss the benefits of cognitive diversity, how becoming a non-executive director can help you get a step up in your career, and the importance of a good relationship between the Chair and a CEO.

Watch the full interview here

So, Deborah, you’re the Chair of a large awarding organisation. What benefits can be gained by welcoming someone from outside the educational sector to the board?

When putting together any board, you want a mix of the way that people think, as well as where they’ve come from.

Thinking about Awarding Bodies, we are about learners and learning. So, there is always that temptation to look first to people who are in the education sector. But it’s important for us to have a diversity of thinking and experience – learners will come through our programs and then take their different places in the world, in social enterprise or business, for example, so we must reflect the diversity of our learners in the diversity of our boards. By creating a board that is reflective, rather than representative of different expertise, they can give a balanced view to the agenda that Awarding Bodies need to cover.

On top of this, people come from different social environments. A lot of the young people, particularly coming into FE, may be coming from challenging backgrounds. Some of these people will face many barriers, from learning styles to social surroundings.

These challenges, and the knock-on effects to the educators on the front lines, have to be understood by the people setting the qualifications. And that really means diversity of lived experience can be paramount to the board of an awarding organisation.

What do you feel is the most rewarding thing about being a non-executive director of an awarding organisation, and why do you think people from outside of the educational skills sector should be interested in joining this specialist area?

I came to the board of an awarding organisation as an outsider – and it was a quick learning curve!

Most people don’t understand what an awarding body does. But I think that awarding organisations sit in one of the most brilliantly interesting sectors. They sit at the intersection of learning, policy and front line, grassroots experience. Add to that the fact you are working on national or international scales, and it’s fascinating.

From the learner up to the government, it requires one to consider three levels of thinking:

  • Who are the learners going through these courses?
  • How do we think about their experience, as well as their ability to achieve in our messaging?
  • How can we deal with the middlemen: the educators who are on the ground who have to manage and operationalise the learning?

Then finally, how do they all intertwine? How does that fit into government or system objectives on learning? To be able to think about all of these things simultaneously is very stimulating, and very interesting!

On top of all of that, you’re answerable to a lot of different regulators. For instance, as a charity, NCFE also has to consider the regulations around fulfilling our charitable objectives – most of the non-executive positions that people will take up will have a degree of regulation involved in their organisation.

Yet another important consideration is our reputation. We are delivering a service to millions, and so all decisions have to also be considered through this lens – for example, delaying an exam is going to have a lot of consequences that we have to deal with.

You have been in non-exec positions since being 28 years old and have continued in non-exec roles alongside your professional working career. Why do you think that starting a non-exec role so early in your career is beneficial?

Becoming a non-executive director has given me a very interesting and different position from what you would normally experience as part of an organisation.

For most people, you set out on a career track to work your way up an organisation or a field, and that often requires concentration on a particular speciality.

As a non-exec, you have a very different role in, most likely, a different type of organisation. Rather than working your way up a ladder, you have a birds’ eye view of the organisation and are accountable for the things that happen. It’s a steep learning curve: you have a duty to learn about the breadth of the organisation because you must understand that organisation’s business, and you must put yourself in the shoes of the people who work within that organisation.


You must learn in a very quick and intense way – I have found being a non-executive director a very enriching and fast-forwarding thing to do for my career, and for my life.

Is that strategic experience important when considering the jump to the next level of your career?

Yes, I think if you want to advance to a very senior level in any organisation or field, there is a very different set of thinking skills that are needed and an ability to step beyond the operational side. As a non-executive, you will be asked: “what is the difference between the executive and non-executive?” And the key answer is supposed to be ‘of course, one must never overstep the line into operational’.

And I think when you are starting out as a non-exec, that’s a really difficult thing to go through. When introduced to a board, you will first question what decisions have been made and why.

As you progress in your career, you must be able to step back and have the oversight to see the difference between the strategy and the operational, but also understand the relationship and how the strategy is rooted in the operational.

I think cutting your teeth on being a non-executive in a smaller organisation to understand the overview and the accountability and how they relate to operations, can be a really beneficial step in your career.

The relationship between the CEO and the board is managed by the Chair. Being the Chair at NCFE, what would be your words of advice to aspiring Chairs about what to expect when holding that role?

Being the Chair is a very exciting and interesting role. But, like most things in life, the advantages are somewhat counterbalanced by an extra degree of accountability.

Being a Chair means inevitably becoming the pinpoint with the CEO on all the things that go wrong, as well as the things that go right. The Chair is responsible for managing the relationship between the board and the CEO to make those uncomfortable decisions that no one wants to make.

As long as you are aware of the risks, the Chair role is enormously valuable and interesting. You have to have tough conversations with the CEO, whilst being mindful to not overstep the operational line and not interfere in the interests of the organisation.

To me, there is a three-pointed approach to being a Chair:

  • You have to be conscious and supportive of the needs of the Chief Executive because, in the end, they’re the ones that are operationally accountable.
  • You have to be very clear that you are completely interrelated with the non-Execs on your board, because if you become separated from the non-execs of your board, that never works in the long run. The board works best when it is working cohesively to support the objectives of the organisation.
  • And the third leg of the stool is the understanding of why your organisation is there, and are you connected or how are you connected to the users and staff of the organisation.

You need a degree of emotional intelligence to be able to balance these, as if you lose sight of any of them, things start to fall apart.

Finally, what would you say to anyone who thinks that being a non-executive is not for them?

You don’t fit into life as just an executive, or non-executive.

It may even be, that you haven’t ever considered yourself on the other side of that line from executive to non-executive.

The consideration of joining a board often stems from a philanthropic objective – you have skills and abilities that can be enormously valuable to an organisation or a cause.

But there are also things that you will personally get out of it. It’s a great way to gain a different, more strategic understanding of how an organisation is run.

The two other things you need to consider when taking on a board role are what accountability you’re taking on, but also what time you can commit. If you’re being appointed for 4 meetings per year for a three-year term, it doesn’t seem like an enormous commitment – but it can be an enormous opportunity.

It’s then just up to you to make your experience as enriching as you can.

However, if you’re the sort of person who thinks you know how to run the organisation, then it might not be the career for you, because one thing that you can never do as a non-executive is run the organisation, that’s given to the executives.

A very big thank you to Deborah for sharing her knowledge and experiences with being a non-executive and in the awarding bodies sector. Click here to connect with her on LinkedIn.