Christopher Baker is Chairman of Aintree Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Nisa Retail, the multi-billion pound member-owned retailer and buying group which represents over 4,000 convenience stores and small supermarkets.
What would you do to make boards more effective?
Effective boards have one thing in common: a strong group of non-executives. And the non-executives must occupy at least half of the seats at the boardroom table.
The executives control the flow of information to the board so you need a decent number of good non-executives to balance out the power between the groups.
Has the way boards operate changed much in the last few years?
Nowadays boards expect to be scrutinised and on balance, I think this has improved the quality of debate.
It forces boards to put more thought into how they arrive at their decisions and to document the process more clearly, which is a healthy self-correcting discipline.
How do you see the role of the Board Secretary?
The Board Secretary has a vital role to play in making sure the business and the board operate in the right way.
A good Board Secretary will be vocal on matters of governance but when it comes to the commercial decisions it’s important that they remain impartial.
They will set the degrees of freedom available to the board around important decisions and they will say when additional protection or advice may be required.
But to be trusted as the record keeper they must be - and must be seen to be - non-partisan to the debate.
How important do you consider information to be in the boardroom?
High quality information is critical to the board’s supervisory role. Drowning the board with a 400 page board pack does not constitute good information. Nor does a board pack that doesn't speak to the organisation’s strategic objectives. Good boards won’t stand for that.
What government policy would you introduce to support British enterprise?
I would loosen up our immigration quotas for skilled individuals.
Britain’s competitive edge will be in the knowledge industries and in a globally competitive market we should be doing everything we can to attract the best talent from around the world, not putting up barriers to keep them out.
As a council member of Liverpool University, I am well aware of the costs of the current policy. We want to secure the best teaching staff for the university from around the world - staff who will train the next generation of British workers to lead the development of our knowledge economy. And through our joint venture in China we have access to students who would like to study here with the potential to build lasting links between our countries. But we do sometimes find ourselves handicapped by our immigration policy.
I understand the political drivers but as I see it, we are doing ourselves more harm than good.
How will the UK’s global influence change over the next decade?
I’m optimistic if we play it right. With the rise of the far eastern economies we are slipping down the league tables in terms of economic might.
But given the power of the English language, if we form the right partnerships and connections then we can continue to punch above our weight as we have for most of my adult life.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve witnessed?
Sir Ernie Harrison’s decision to apply for one of the UK’s first mobile telecoms licences for Racal, which later became Vodafone. He applied late in the day and Racal had never been in consumer electronics. But they had their military radio technology to draw on and Ernie saw the potential of the commercial mobile phone market. His vision drove Racal to become the global business Vodafone is today.
What book is on your bedside table?
This is where I’m meant to dredge up the names of some worthy sounding books on business strategy! But in truth, I am reading Jo Nesbo’s thriller Police. It’s a rattling good read and reminds you that we always need to be cautious about who we trust.
What is your golden rule?
My golden rule is not to have a golden rule. There are very few single right answers to the problems we face in the world or in business.
In the boardroom it’s important to bring the benefit of your experience to every discussion. But pre-conceived ‘rules’ shouldn’t take precedence over the facts and circumstances of the situation at hand.
If you could rip up the rule book…
I would leave it ripped up. I wouldn’t replace it. Too many rules stifle the board and get in the way of the conversations that matter.