Christopher is Chair of the British Council and Port of London Authority. He is former Chair of VisitBritain.
How can Boards be more effective?
The most important thing is to own the Board agenda, which is all too-easily hijacked by day-to-day events (or the executives).
We should also do more to train our non-executives. Bringing influence to bear in the Boardroom is a skill that has to be learnt. I remember the Chairman of a Board where I was once a non-exec saying “Christopher, excellent points you raised at the board today. If you’d been CEO that would have been the perfect intervention. But you are not”. It taught me a lesson.
The mark of an effective Board is when the exec say “we got a better decision thanks to the discussion at the Board” and not “silly buggers, another day wasted”.
How important is information to the workings of the Board?
It’s important for management to frame the information they send to the Board to stimulate the right conversation. The Board papers need to focus the guns on the right target. Not just blitz away at the nearest moving ship. Doing this well isn’t easy.
Are Boards out of touch with society?
Until recently Boards have been taking strides to improve the way they connect with their wider business — rather than society at large. But it is becoming understood that ‘licence to operate’ is in the gift of a much larger community than just the regulator and judiciary. So this is moving up the pecking order in most Boardrooms and rightly so.
It’s almost against the principle of being Chairman to claim personal achievements. Your role is to help the Chief Executive to be as effective and successful as possible. They should take the credit, not you.
But don’t get me wrong: supporting the CEO doesn’t mean always saying ‘yes’ and saluting as the parade goes past. Sometimes saying ‘no’ and saving them from themselves is the best way you can help them. But it’s still about them, not you.
I subscribe to the management philosophy of ‘upside-down governance’. The role of the board is to make sure the organisation’s resources are deployed in the most effective way and to do everything you can to help those resources be used as well as possible.
What book are you reading?
I am a historian and I have two military-history books on the go right now.
The first is American Warrior by Arthur Herman. It is the story of Douglas MacArthur — a five-star General who led American troops in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. His story is a reminder that people make and break an organisation: duck a people change and you’ll regret it, and whilst surrounding yourself with like-minded people may be easier it’s not the way to get the best outcome.
The other book I am reading is Lee & Grant by Gene Smith. This is the story of two iconic Generals on opposing sides of the US civil war and with two very different styles of leadership. Lee was less directive, Grant far more so.
As Chairman you need to wear two hats. As Chair, if things go wrong on the Board, the bullet goes through you first, so you need to do what is necessary to deliver an effective Board. On the other hand, when you are out in the field (and I don’t think you can Chair from behind a desk) you can’t go around issuing dictates to people who don’t report to you. I am fond of the phrase “you might want to think about…”. But primarily, when you are out and about you are listening, learning and bringing what you see back to the Boardroom
Desert Island luxury?
A sculling boat. Not to escape but to row around the island.
What is your golden rule?
Bring people with you. Or fail.