Alison Kay is Group General Counsel and Company Secretary at the FTSE 100 National Grid and a member of the GC 100. She has also served as an observer on the Board of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
If you could wave a magic wand, how would you make boards more effective?
I would have more diversity on boards. Boards should be more representative of the businesses and communities they serve. However, just putting a mix of people on the board is not enough — you then need to work hard to make sure everyone at the table has a voice.
To help every member of the board contribute effectively, I would take a leaf out of something we do at National Grid in our Executive Committee meetings. For each agenda item, our CEO nominates someone different to play devil’s advocate and be the lead protagonist in the debate. It’s empowering and it helps everyone around the table get used to speaking up.
Have boards changed much in the last few years?
There are two things that are much higher up the board agenda than ever before: culture and societal impact.
Company culture can be your Achilles’ heel or the root of your success. Our board at National Grid has been actively involved in developing a set of new, crisp, clear statements around our purpose, vision and values. We have also increased our board’s exposure to the business to help them monitor the health of our culture. We’ve always done site visits, but the nature of the questions that they ask on these visits has changed, probing to find out how people really feel and how they are treated.
Are boards out of touch with society?
Yes and no. I think boards are more aware than ever of the societal impact of their decisions. But they need to stick their heads above the parapet and be more transparent about how they reach their decisions.
You can never please everyone, but I think too many companies have used this as a excuse to say as little as possible. We could do a lot to mend relations between business and society if the way we actually do business were better understood.
What is your biggest bug-bear around board information?
There is too much information in many board packs which makes it hard to direct the board to the pertinent issues. And my other bug-bear is papers that fail to clarify the questions they are addressing and exactly what is required from the board.
By contrast, when this is done well the board can take decisions much faster. Working with Board Intelligence we’ve developed a strong reporting culture at National Grid and an interesting side effect has been management’s willingness to involve the board much earlier in their thinking — bringing ideas to the board that are not yet fully baked and inviting the board to input.
What is your proudest achievement or the smartest business decision you’ve made?
Recognising that the Company Secretariat needed to be run like a business. We brought in an operational process expert and we are far more commercially minded these days, stripping out things we were doing that we didn’t need to be doing.
Legal and CoSec teams can sometimes be an island. It’s important that they are accountable just like every other part of a business.
How can government best support business?
I think government needs to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Each governance scandal leads to a fiercer focus on a handful of issues and a lot more box ticking. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of board directors are motivated to govern successful businesses that benefit society and too many boxes to tick can get in the way of that.
What book is on your bedside table?
I am reading Not Impossible, by Mick Ebeling. It’s written by the founder of an agency of the same name, that takes on big humanitarian and social challenges, and comes up with solutions against the odds — like finding a way to produce prosthetic limbs at a price point that makes them accessible in developing countries.
We are working with the agency at National Grid right now to launch an initiative called Project Bold. National Grid exists to bring energy to life and we want to extend this mission into human energy. If people don’t have the basic energy they need to function properly — for example if they lack food and water — they can’t fulfil their potential and that’s where Project Bold comes in.
What luxury item would you take on a desert island?
I would take an extremely well-stocked Kindle — and a solar power charger!
What is your golden rule?
Don’t expect others to do what you wouldn’t do yourself — which doesn’t mean I do everything myself, as my colleagues will be the first to tell you! But if you had the time, there should be nothing you delegate to others that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.