Helen White is chief executive of Taff Housing Association, as well as a board member for TSA — the industry body for technology enabled care — and WCVA — the national membership body for voluntary organisations in Wales. Prior to this, Helen was chief executive of Cheshire West Voluntary Action, and chair of the Wales Regulatory Board and Knowsley Housing Trust.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
It starts when you walk in the room and get a sense of the atmosphere. Are board members connecting, and are they all in the room for the same reason? It can be very telling of the organisation’s culture, and how the board approaches decision-making.
Your job as a board director isn’t simply to make decisions. It’s to constantly reflect and ask, “Why are we here in the first place?” Clarity on vision and purpose will drive the board in the right direction — in our case, for example, decisions rarely go to a vote, we build a consensus instead towards reaching our shared vision.
“Your job as a board director isn’t simply to make decisions. It’s to constantly reflect and ask, ‘Why are we here in the first place?’”
Cultivating that culture while working remotely can be difficult. The first couple of meetings during the lockdown, there was a tendency to forget the social element — we would just dive right in. Now, we open our Zoom calls 30 minutes ahead of time, to recreate that crucial time off the agenda.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt during the COVID-19 crisis?
That we can do more than we think. If you had told me six months ago that we could become a home-based organisation overnight, I would have never believed it. And yet, we — like many others — adapted fairly smoothly and managed to do what seemed impossible.
In itself, that’s great news. But, long term, it also removes a convenient excuse that change isn’t possible. If we want to do things quickly, we can do things quickly — and everyone knows it now.
Are boards out of touch with society? If so, how can they re-engage?
Our board directors aren’t remunerated, so we may be a slightly different case than most. That said, we’re painfully aware that the diversity of our board doesn’t reflect the community we serve — and we, like many, are working on it.
“We have to turn that question around and ask, ‘How can we generate interest in our organisation beyond the usual suspects?’”
One of the justifications boards too often hide behind is, “We advertise but we don’t get diverse applicants”. Instead, we have to turn that question around and ask, “How can we generate interest in our organisation beyond the usual suspects?” For example, many young people think they don’t have enough experience to join, but one person’s experience is another person’s baggage — lack of it can be a good thing that prevents you from having the same viewpoints as everyone else, and boards should be saying so. We are working hard to make our board roles more accessible.
What would your perfect board pack look like?
High-quality information, particularly around performance. You need to give a clear, honest picture around where the organisation is at, how it’s performing, and what it needs — because the board can only support an organisation if it fully understands it.
Papers in the pack should be very clear about what they’re asking. Are they for information, discussion, or decision? And what’s the link with the corporate plan’s end goal? For non-executives not involved day-to-day in a complex organisation, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual objective, so it helps having papers stating things plainly.
“If you don’t want NEDs to give you operational advice, stop giving them only operational information!”
Finally, coming from my dual background as a CEO and as a chair: If you don’t want NEDs to give you operational advice, stop giving them only operational information! As a CEO, you don’t want to over-influence your non-executives, but as a NED you have to get some minimum level of guidance on what’s actually needed from you, and not just figures.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve made, or the one you’re the proudest of?
Anything where I get feedback on the impact our Housing Association had on someone’s life. Hearing stories of how a family got access to a warm house and was able to thrive, or that a tenant who volunteered with us used that experience to go to university and graduate with a first-class degree… It helps you realise you’re not just providing people with a mere flat, you’re also helping them achieve success in other parts of their lives.
What advice would you give yourself if you were starting out again?
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Decisions are rarely totally right or wrong. Sometimes, things don’t go the way you’d have hoped, but it doesn’t mean the choice you made was bad to begin with.
What book is on your bedside table?
I’m not a huge reader, but I’m enjoying How to Win, by Clive Woodward. It covers his rugby career and what parts of his experience can be applied to business.
One takeaway that stuck with me: Teams setting their own rules stick to them. It pays to involve everyone from the start, rather than go through the pain of having to convince later on.
What is your Golden Rule?
Try to be kind in everything that you do. To others, but also to yourself.
And with my chair hat on: Make sure that the sum is greater than the parts. I’ve sometimes been in “incompetent groups of competent individuals” where, on paper, we were a great board, and yet we made poor decisions together. Lots of big personalities aren’t always conducive to good collective decisions.