Jenny Davies is CEO of M247, a Livingbridge-backed international B2B cloud partner that has grown from a small Manchester-based operation to a global business with presence in 28 countries. Jenny was formerly a senior leader in Openreach, the regulated division of the BT Group, where she led large operational teams and, prior to this, was an Operations Director at the FTSE 100 United Utilities.
Can board meetings ‘change the game’ for a PE-backed business?
Yes — if the focus of the meeting is right. Boards add much less value on the operational minutiae, the real value is in the discussion of initiatives that are going to create value, of developments that could impact the business internally and externally, and of topics where the management team can benefit from the input and advice of people around the table.
At M247 for example, we didn’t have digital marketing capability 12 months ago and we sought the help of our board. Today, we are one of the strongest in the UK and internationally in organic search. Had the questions not come up and had we not asked for help, we wouldn’t have got to where we are.
The value people who are outside of your business and sector can add is invaluable, because they have exposure to things that may affect your organisation but may not have crossed your mind. In PE, this is even more relevant as investment directors sit on multiple boards and interact with so many businesses — but you need for that discussion to happen in the first place to get that input.
What makes a board meeting valuable for you as CEO?
The key question I want an answer to in the board meeting is, ‘what have I missed?’ and that’s where the value lies for me — but you have to proactively ask for that and it’s not easy, unless you’ve built an environment in the boardroom and in the business that makes people feel that it is okay to ask for help.
How do you create that environment?
The way you contract with each other in the beginning sets the tone for how much management teams share. People put up barriers to change because they are fearful. You have to provide clarity and help them understand that there is nothing to be afraid of, that it’s all about evolution and growth. It can be transformational for the business.
To make that happen, one of the first things we did with our Chair and the Investment Director was taking the time to flesh out details around what we were all there to do, and what it would look like when we challenged each other. Once you have that outlined, the next step is to get alignment on the objectives for the business and ensure those are reflected on the annual calendar and the reports that will be prepared to support the discussion.
Do PE houses give good-enough guidance to management teams around board meetings?
I think Livingbridge do this quite well. When a new CEO joins the family, they recommend tools that might help them speed up the curve — specifically around the information needed for board meetings. I was lucky that we got into Board Intelligence very early on, and the fact that it was being used in other Livinbridge businesses meant it was a tried-and-tested approach, so we didn’t waste time and energy trying to second-guess what might work.
Done well, the preparation for the meeting enables the management team to take a step back and reflect — and you don’t get a chance to do that often. The meeting then gives them an opportunity to talk to the board about the business, discuss the highs and lows, and get feedback
What more can be done to increase the effectiveness of board meetings?
We need to constantly challenge ourselves on the time we spend looking backwards and to get that balance right. It’s all about resisting the urge to be drawn into the detail and elevate ourselves to have a truly value-adding discussion — one that get people come out of the meeting thinking ‘Damn, why didn’t I think of that?!’.
What would your advice be to a CEO of a business about to be backed by Private Equity?
Agree the roles and responsibilities around how you will work together.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help! It shows that you are objective and have professional integrity. Perhaps even more importantly, it also gives you an opportunity to learn, because those questions are how you get little nuggets from peoples’ brains that you would never have found had you not asked.
This interview is part of a series researching the Board’s value in Private Equity. To get a copy of the full report, click here.