After starting her career as a news Journalist, Sarah Atkinson has climbed the comms ladder whilst focusing on boosting opportunities for young people and increasing diversity in organisations. She enjoyed Senior Communications positions at telecom firms Cisco and BT Cellnet, before running her own PR agency for several years. Before her current role at Micro Focus, the largest tech firm on the FTSE where Atkinson is Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, she ran PR, brand, employee engagement and social responsibility at software firm CA Technologies - and now she’s just added the Nurole-recruited role of board member at Berkshire Youth, which provides volunteering posts for young people and helps to support the area’s youth as they navigate drug, health and family issues. Atkinson also served on the board of techUK – an organisation driving the digital agenda in Government for three years and today chairs techUK’s Diversity & Skills Council.
From your commercial, comms background what’s been the most valuable part of your toolkit at not-for-profit Berkshire Youth?
Reduced Government funding meant Berkshire Youth realised it needed to develop its brand in the corporate world - and it’s great timing to do so. More organisations are looking to carry out more social responsibility, with ideas such as employee volunteering, so there are so many more opportunities for charities and not-for-profits to partner with brands who want to do more for their communities. So from my comms background, I am helping BY to reflect on its purpose and its proposition - its projects stretch from providing advice to youth clubs, to putting youth workers on the ground to help with issues such as drugs gangs in rural communities. Together, we’re looking at BY’s aims, what it wants to develop, and what could link well to the corporate world - the ‘war for funding’ means you need to invest in your brand, people need to know who you are. And having come from the corporate world, I have a good understanding of what matters to corporates and the importance of demonstrating clear impact which are key to securing partnerships.
You spend a lot of time with young people. The average age of a UK board member has just exceeded 60 - how can ‘experienced’ board members tap into their youth-focused market?
I’ve seen a lot of good work in organisations with a youth board - a secondary board or committee made up of members of your community, who bring a much more authentic voice in terms of what’s going on, and what the main issues are, rather than second-guessing at board-level. At Berkshire Youth we’re looking at bringing a committee of young people to the table - you need to hear the issues.
Another idea is reverse mentoring - it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in my career. Someone from a completely different background, such as a young person, just swapping roles with someone completely different. I’d recommend it to more experienced boards - it can be really eye-opening.
What’s the benefit of having a brand-expert on a non-executive board?
It’s how they can audit campaigns or PR ideas - the advantage of having someone with corporate brand experience means they can challenge an in-house or agency PR team on things like how is this going to impact the brand longer term? Does it chime with our ethics? How is it going to be perceived in the marketplace? How will our investors respond? It’s useful to have that independent view.
It’s really important for crisis comms planning too: all NEDs should be helping firms to run through scenarios that could happen to a business. It’s planning ahead, like with fire drills: if product X broke, what would you do? If Y came out on social media, what would your line of response be? A board-level expert can help with that oversight:and ensure there is a strategy, which connects right from the top of the company to the person running the social media channels.
At CA Technologies, you were the executive sponsor for gender diversity & inclusion - what do you think boards need to do to become more diverse?
I’ve been pleased with the work of reviews, like the Hampton Alexander review [into gender balance in FTSE leadership] but so much more needs to be done. Frankly, it makes business sense: with diversity of thought and background, firms are far more effective at problem-solving, teamwork, and just have a faster route to success when they’re embraced diversity in its broadest form. The data proves that it’s a smart thing to do - so whilst it’s key to continue to drive the debate, let’s not forget it is about equality.
One of the reasons I think Nurole is so successful is that it helps firms to proactively reach out to female and more diverse talent. It’s broader recruitment - not just a chair’s own networks, but a wider net.
With your career starting in news journalism, what do you think will be the big moves/headlines in corporate governance over the next few years?
The future workforce’s skills - swathes of workers are not going to have the right kind of skills that Britain needs as we continue with the pervasiveness of tech, automation, and AI. One of the big elephants in the room that we’re looking at techUK is how we’re going to re-skill whole sections of our workforce to be future-fit. There’s definitely a responsibility within the industry, as well as at Government level: what can we do collectively to ensure that we as a country have the right pool of talent to move forward?
Now time for some quick-fire questions...
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.
If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got.
Dubrovnik last summer - it was amazing.
What do you do to have fun?
Hang out with friends and try out new things.
“Olio” - which connects leftover food with hungry people.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
Typically around 6.30am. Seven hours serves me well.
If you are looking for senior executive and non-executive director roles, Nurole's innovative recruitment platform can help.