Helen Alexander is chairman of Incisive Media, a NED at Rolls Royce and Centrica and was formerly the president of the CBI and CEO of The Economist Group.
What would make UK boardrooms more effective?
The big issue right now has to be increasing diversity amongst board directors. This goes far beyond increasing the number of women on boards. We need directors from a wide variety of backgrounds and functions if we’re to have robust debate in the boardroom.
It is also important that boards allocate sufficient time to succession planning, talent management and the dynamics of the board room. It is easy for these issues to get forgotten but to have a good team in the boardroom with a good working relationship is priceless.
Has the way boards operate changed much in the last few years?
I think the answer to that is yes, there has been a certain amount of change. Good boards have become that much sharper, that much more focussed and that much more responsive and even those boards that have not been so strong in the past have shown signs of improvement.
The new codes and the publicity surrounding them have meant that, collectively, directors are now much more aware of their roles and responsibilities; directors who may have kept quiet in the past are now much more likely to make their voice heard.
What changes to government policy would you like to make to support British enterprise?
There are two areas that I think are particularly important:
Firstly, we need to lower the corporate tax rate. We need an internationally competitive tax rate if we’re to remain an attractive place to do business.
Secondly, I would ramp up the current government’s attempts to reduce red tape. At present, many would-be entrepreneurs are nervous about the amount of regulation they may face. The “one in, one out” system for new regulations is a good idea; but “one in, two out” is probably a better idea!
Which companies would you back for the next decade?
I would look for companies that have a growing and global market place and the potential to build a strong export business. I would also look for companies that have weathered a few storms and have a few battle scars, so those that are at least 3 years old and have survived tough conditions.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve witnessed?
I have always admired the decision made by my predecessors at The Economist to start printing the newspaper in America. It was a big step to take at the time but it opened up a huge international market which has helped to drive the success of the company.
What book is on your bedside table?
Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, by Victor Sebestyen.
What is your golden rule?
My golden rule is to remember that life is long and to treat people well. People you meet can crop up decades later and they will remember how you treated them.