Angela Lockwood: “You can’t simply tell managers, ‘From Monday on, you’ll trust your staff more.’”

Non-executive directors

6 min read

Angela Lockwood is chief executive of North Star Housing Group, a North-East-based Housing Association with a goal to both “build homes and create futures”. She’s also a school governor, and a board member of Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust. Having started her career at Sunderland Council, Angela then worked for Home Housing and is involved in regional and national housing policy.

What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?

Obviously, good meetings rely on an efficient structure — one where board papers are concise and timely, and where board members are present and engaged. But beyond that essential requirement, the best meetings are those where the relationship between attendees is healthy enough to allow strong, and robust challenge.

If you have a look at the boards that failed spectacularly — the Enrons or Northern Rocks of the world — they probably had cutting-edge risk management processes and some of the brightest people you can find. They didn’t fail because they were missing systems and processes, they failed because they hadn’t built an environment where directors were asking the right questions, where there was a culture of curiosity, challenge, and exploration. I suggest they possibly weren’t fully checking out the information given to them.

“You need to be willing to invest time and energy in helping board members develop connections with each other.”

Such a culture doesn’t come easily. For starters, you need board members who are curious, listen to understand, can both give and receive honest feedback, and come from a mixture of sectors and backgrounds that will ensure diverging views and dissenting voices. But you also need to be willing to invest time and energy in helping them develop connections with each other.

At North Star, we take the whole board off-site twice a year. Not to discuss strategy — that’s what board meetings are for — but to develop personal relationships by working together on answering the big questions: How do we challenge each other?; How do we manage conflict?; What truly matters to us?; What’s our social purpose and how much are we committed to it?; Where does the power sit within this organisation?; Where do we fall short and how do we want to improve?

Only by developing these relationships can you then build trust. Not the blind trust that leads to cosiness, but the trust that your board will be challenging you — and challenging you for the right reasons. And once you’ve got all that, your discussion and outcomes will be so much more robust.

What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt during the Covid-19 crisis?

Crises usually magnify the existing culture of an organisation, and in our case it mostly reaffirmed things we already believed in. If you operate in an environment with a high level of trust, where you expect everyone to act like adults, the loss of direct control caused by remote working doesn’t impact your operations that much.

What it does impact, however, is how decisions are being made. Zoom and fast-paced environments like the one we were in are well-suited for directive managerial styles, but not for collaborative ones. While this works for a while, and was arguably needed, for us it cannot be the constant leadership style. We have been very efficient and made do without that social element, because we had to, but our future will definitely not be made of virtual-only board meetings.

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Are boards out of touch with society? If so, how can they re-engage?

We can all get better in how we interact with our stakeholders, and we all should. It doesn’t have to be out of altruism, either — every bit of research tells you the best-performing boards are the ones that are representative of their customers and community and know and understand what’s going on within it. Connection and engagement are just good for business.

“Connection and engagement are just good for business.”

There was an interesting example of that dynamic during the early days of the pandemic, as customers contacted Marks & Spencer with questions around Covid-19, simply because it was an organisation they trusted. When M&S’s management team realised what was going on, it made sure to get back to these callers with the latest advice the company had gathered — and most likely made quite a few customers for life in the process.

What would your perfect board pack look like?

In an ideal world, an individual report would be no longer than two sides of A4, and would always make two things clear: Firstly, what is it exactly that you want from the board? And secondly, what is the essential information the board needs to be able to give you that?

My heart sinks when I see a 250-page-long pack. It’s not just that it isn’t useful — since it would take me a month to properly go through that much data and understand it all — it’s not even a requirement. The regulator does not determine the size of board papers, and is perfectly satisfied with short papers as long as they cover what directors should know and allow good decisions to be made.

“My heart sinks when I see a 250-page-long pack. It’s not just that it isn’t useful, it’s not even a requirement.”

In our case, we’ve agreed on a set of guiding principles: We approve our agendas 18 months in advance, and have defined the length of those papers — agreed through a joint board and director working group. We then apply a discipline of sticking to the agendas as far as we are able, otherwise creep happens and you end up with an entire industry around producing board papers.

What is the smartest business decision you’ve made, or the one you’re the proudest of?

Starting with culture. You can have good systems, but they won’t work without the right culture.

At North Star, it took us years to reach the shared-leadership environment we have today. Enacting policies isn’t creating a culture; you can’t simply tell your managers on a Friday, “From Monday on, you’ll trust your staff more, and then it will happen” — you have to define what that means and develop everyone, board included. It requires commitment from the very top, along with role modelling and constant development — you never get there.

“Enacting policies isn’t creating a culture.”

We’ve been voted number one landlord in the country by our housing association peers, were first in the sector to get an Investors in People Platinum Award, have been a Sunday Times Best Company… and that’s all thanks to how we work with our people and, by extension, how they work with our tenants.

What advice would you give yourself if you were starting out again?

“Angela, what’s the rush?”

The world is increasingly complex, full of dilemmas, uncertainties, and change that requires us to slow down and think more. Many decisions require us to work in increasingly collaborative ways, and that in itself needs time for dialogue and reflection. Some simple things can be done quickly, others don’t have easy answers and need more people, time, and collaboration to lead to good outcomes.

What book is on your bedside table?

I have two at the moment.

The first one is Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, a novel based on the story of Shakespeare’s son and his early death. It’s mostly fiction, but I’ve been completely entranced by it.

And because I feel that I have to read something work-oriented, I’m also going through Uncharted, by Margaret Heffernan. The gist of it is that we’re addicted to predictions and desperate for certainty, but the complexity of life doesn’t allow for that to happen, so what does that mean for leaders? I find it an interesting counterpoint just as government advisers have been recommended to read Superforecasting, a book on making better predictions.

What is your Golden Rule?

Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand.

We tend to formulate our responses before we’ve even finished hearing what’s being said — and that’s how we miss what’s at the heart of the issue. It’s difficult not to make up your opinion while listening, but you need to fully understand what others are saying before you do that.

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