Alison Munro is chair of the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure and TfL’s independent investment advisory group, as well as a non-executive director at OFWAT — the Water Services Regulation Authority. She was chief executive and managing director of HS2 — Britain’s second high speed rail line and one of the largest infrastructure projects in Europe — from 2009 to 2017, and worked on both HS1 and the UK government’s airport policy.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
A good board meeting is one you come out of — or, nowadays, log out from — knowing you and the rest of the board members have added value for the executives.
It’s about drawing out the non-executive directors’ experience and expertise, and have them bring new ideas, different perspectives, support — but also, crucially, challenge — into the management team’s thinking.
If you can do all that, and do it in a way that remains both strategic and collaborative — instead of diving into operational detail or trying to do their jobs for them — then you’re most likely on the right track.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt during the Covid-19 crisis?
I’ve been positively surprised by how well one can actually conduct board business remotely. In fact, I’d argue virtual meetings offer several benefits over physical ones.
On the logistics side of things, it removes much of the hassles of trying to bring together a group of directors living on different sides of the country. Moving meetings online gives you flexibility and allows you to react much more rapidly — which is what you need when times get tough. In our case, for example, we ran shorter main board meetings, alongside several catch-up meetings in between.
“Meeting virtually can benefit the quality of the conversation, too.”
Unexpectedly, it can benefit the quality of the conversation, too. The virtual format doesn’t lend itself well to long meetings, and so the discussions tend to be much more focused. And features such as the chat window you can have alongside the video feed allow for smaller queries to be dealt with at a more appropriate time, or even outside of the meeting, instead of interrupting the discussion.
Obviously, it’s not a silver bullet. You miss on important elements, starting with the much-needed human interaction between directors or the ability to get a better sense of the organisation by meeting staff. But there are positives I hope we’ll take away from the experience — it’d be a waste to simply go back to old habits.
What would your perfect board pack look like?
Every board member at some point has had the experience of going through a massive board pack and, once done reading it, still not be sure of what exactly it was they were asked to do or understand. So, first thing first, papers need to be very clear, starting with their purpose. Why exactly is the board seeing this — is this for information only, or are you expecting a decision from me?
They must then explain the issue itself. Non-executives don’t have innate knowledge of the intricacies of the business, so what’s the context? Problems can be complex and require digging into the detail — in which case give me appendices in case I want to dive in — but the first page of the paper should allow me to quickly understand where it’s coming from.
Finally, what are our options — surely there’s more than one! —, which one do you recommend, and why? You don’t have to bombard me with pages upon pages of data, but I need to see at least some convincing evidence that supports your preferred choice.
“It’s the chief executive’s responsibility to get the board pack into shape.”
A paper that doesn’t follow these points shouldn’t be coming to the board in the first place — and it’s the chief executive’s responsibility to get the board pack into shape otherwise. I find experience in the public sector a good training in that regard: Often, ministers will require submissions be no more than three-pages long, and that forces you to think through the issue clearly before putting it to paper.
Are boards out of touch with society? If so, how can they re-engage?
The obvious answer is to make your board more diverse and representative of the business you’re in. The college I chair, for one, has staff and student representatives on the board, and it helps bring a richer range of perspectives to the discussion.
“Short of adding hundreds of directors, you can’t be a perfect mirror of society.”
But that approach can only take you so far: Short of adding hundreds of directors, you can’t be a perfect mirror of society. So, in addition to bringing external knowledge onto the board, it’s up to boards to expand their thinking and find other ways of broadening their experience. For example, if the executives have customer engagement sessions, why not have non-executives attend these so they can get face-to-face experience with the customers?
What is the smartest business decision you’ve made?
This is a challenging question when you come from the public sector, where you contribute to the decision-making process but where the big decisions themselves are ultimately made by the ministers.
That said, looking back at the successes in my life, they’ve always been the work of a first-class team — so I’d argue my best call was to surround myself with great people. One of the biggest impacts you can have as a CEO, and the surest way to enable an organisation to succeed, is appointing the right persons at board and senior-leadership level.
What advice would you give yourself if you were starting out again?
I’d tell my past self, “You can do more than you think.”
As life takes you in unexpected directions, it may sometimes seem you’ve fallen into things, rather than chosen them, and it’s only natural to feel out of your depth. But being uncomfortable doesn’t equate to doing a poor job — in fact, it’s often the opposite. So, go for it!
What book is on your bedside table?
It’s a Kindle — which makes getting new things to read easier during lockdown!
I’ve just finished A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum, a fascinating novel about Palestinian immigrants in New York and the role of women in their society.
What is your Golden Rule?
Whether personal or business, live by your values.