60 seconds with… John Barton

Chair of the board

4 min read

John Barton is Chairman of easyJet and Next. Prior to this, John was Chairman of Catlin and Cable and Wireless Worldwide, Senior Independent Director of WH Smith and Hammerson, and Chief Executive of JIB Group.

Have boards changed much in the past few years?

There is far more regulation than before. And the most unenviable role on the board has now passed from the chair of the audit committee to the chair of the remuneration committee. Going public with executive pay has undoubtedly driven the ratcheting upwards and there is pressure on remuneration committees to drive pay back down. But it’s not easy when you are trying to hire the best man or woman for the job from a globally competitive talent pool.

On the other hand, it strikes me as odd that we can’t fill more executive positions from the inside, which would seem to me to solve much of the problem. Amongst the tens of thousands of employees within a large company, is there really no one capable of doing the top job? Giving people the training and the opportunity to progress is really important.

What does a good board look like?

On a good board there will be plenty of challenging debate and it will be stimulating not only for the non-executives but also for the execs. It’s also important to leave your ego at the door. We should banish such phrases as “with all due respect” which must be the least respectful way of saying anything. That style of behaviour in the boardroom, as in life, won’t get you very far.

There will always be people who love to talk, which can crowd out quieter board members. So for all key decisions, I go around the table and ask each person for their views one at a time. It’s the only way to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

A good board also recognises the value of the board review process. Each year my SID feeds back to me on what I’ve done well, badly or not done at all. It’s a useful mirror for all chairmen.

How do boards participate in strategy? 

I’ve always been sceptical about board Strategy Away Days. Strategy should be core to every board meeting, not something discussed on a ceremonial basis. I also think the term ‘strategy’ aggrandises a far more organic process. In my experience, strategy is a post-rationalisation for an idea that’s been trialled and that’s worked out – and we see this as much in business as we do in battle.

The history books hail Wellington a master strategist. But if truth be told, I’m sure his ‘strategy’ was nothing more than trial and error, repeating the things that brought him success. The same goes for boards.

How important is information in the boardroom? 

High quality information is essential. And it needs to be easy to read and access. Using an iPad app like your Board Portal makes my life much easier!

What has made you into the man you are today?

Funnily enough I was reflecting on this just recently, when I was invited by my old school to give a lecture to the sixth formers. It prompted me to flick through some of my old school reports, which said that I played too much sport and didn’t read enough. I showed it to my wife who said “that’s the man I married!” But my reports also pointed out that I got on particularly well with my peers.

Back in the ‘50s EQ wasn’t a recognised quality but it’s remarkable how intelligent people without it struggle in the commercial world. To succeed nowadays you need to be able to persuade, not dictate. I’m a great believer in listening and learning and that has probably helped me more than anything else.

Had you always set your sights on the boardroom?

Getting into the boardroom was never an objective. I grew up on a farm and it was the job of the pig farmer that I set my sights on, not one around a boardroom table. But when I dropped out of university my parents and grandparents were appalled, and then my father persuaded his accountant to take me on. I qualified as a chartered accountant and then went on to do an MBA.

I’ve never considered my position in the boardroom to be superior to the pig farmers looking after 5,000 pigs. When I board a plane I often marvel at the work of our cabin crew and how much better a job they do than I could. And I feel the same about our shop managers at Next.

Which sectors would you back for the next decade? 

If anyone knew the answer they'd be a genius – and a wealthy one too! I’d say technology and health are good bets but timing is everything.

What book is on your bedside table?

I read such a lot for the boards I sit on that I don’t get the time to read recreationally. And I’m not someone who has ever been in the habit of reading just for the pleasure of it.

What is your golden rule?

I have two. Treat people with respect and don’t worry. If something goes wrong, don’t agonise over it. Just sort it out.

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