Lord Victor Adebowale: “When plans go flying out the window the way they did in 2020, all that’s left to guide you are your values.”

Chair of the board

6 min read

Lord Victor Adebowale is chair and co-founder of Visionable, a health technology company focused on health system redesign, and NED at Nuffield Health and the Co-operative Group. Victor is the former CEO of Turning Point, a care-providing social enterprise and has served on the boards of NHS England and Centrepoint. He has been a crossbench member of the House of Lords since 2001.

What items should be on the board’s agenda in 2021?

The big one, which transcends whatever industry you might be in, is culture.

When plans go flying out the window the way they did in 2020 and you find yourself having to adapt to an uncharted, fast-moving, chaotic environment, all that’s left to guide you are your values. So, your board needs to be crystal clear about what it stands for — and how the organisation’s mission, strategy, and operations align with that vision.

“When plans go flying out the window the way they did in 2020, all that’s left to guide you are your values.”

As a topic, it may seem a little ethereal, and it requires directors to get out of their comfort zone of scrutinising operations. But crises aren’t going away, and the future will favour organisations that have had demanding conversations about their culture.

What’s the one question every board should be answering?

“How are we relevant?” both as a board and as a business. What will our legacy be and what difference do we want to make?

Whether it’s wealth inequality, Black Lives Matter, or climate change, there are big shifts underway. You can have different views about what these things mean based on your own sensibilities, but you can’t ignore them. A board pretending it doesn’t have to make decisions around these events will end up being controlled by them.

“A board pretending it doesn’t have to make decisions around the big shifts underway will end up being controlled by them.”

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What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?

There are quite a few of them — a sense of team; a well-defined purpose; clear limits with a beginning, middle, and end; diverse participants… — but I’d like to highlight three:

  • First, a team that has the wisdom to know that not everything requires an answer right away. It’s the chair’s job to recognise the difference between the problems that need an answer now; those that need more information; and those that are only the start of a conversation. Some topics will require multiple attempts before you get to where you want to be, and that’s okay.
  • Second, enough space for diverse conversation. Chairs must make sure they don’t fall into the trap of summarising conversations in a way that’s reflective of their opinion (what they heard), rather than of the actual conversation (what was said).
  • Third, unhindered challenge. Boards can be intimidating and scare some people into not daring to question habits and the status quo. A good board meeting will offer an environment where no one is afraid to put their hand up to ask, “Why are we doing this, and what does it mean?”

“Chairs mustn’t fall into the trap of summarising conversations in a way that’s reflective of their opinion (what they heard), rather than of the actual conversation (what was said).”

What would your perfect board pack look like?

There’s a difference between data and information. Yet, some packs give you the former and expect you to turn it into the latter.

The presumption that everybody on the board has the same level of expertise, or the same interest in the topic, or even the same way of understanding things, is a fundamental mistake many report authors make. Few boards try to correct this, particularly when it comes to financial data. Yet, when you just get reams upon reams of data, your own analysis is likely to come to the wrong conclusions. The author knows far more about the topic than you ever will — so, why do subject-matter experts put the burden on the reader?

“The author knows far more about the topic than you ever will — so, why do subject-matter experts put the burden on the reader?”

Don’t give me just the facts. Tell what you think of them, and in turn, ask me what I think of your judgment — because that’s what board members are here for.

The pack must tell a story when taken together — a mix of positives, negatives, and “I just don’t know.” If these three things aren’t present, I get suspicious about the nature of the information I’m getting and start wondering, “Why is it being presented that way, and is the pack being used in a way to manage the board rather than empower it?”

Was there a moment in your life that defines you?

If there is one, it stems from childhood. My mother was a nurse, who came to England in the Fifties, when being African — or Irish, for that matter — in this country was no joke. She trained in Nigeria and her qualifications weren’t recognised as valid here, even though they were the English ones — and, as she likes to joke, despite the fact she was probably the only nurse in the UK who could cure cobra bites! But she had a certain way of thinking that enabled her to make the most of her circumstances. That’s something I see in many nurses, and she encouraged me to think in that way too.

In fact, that likely influenced a pivotal moment in my career, too, as I moved from the public sector to the private sector. When we founded Visionable with Alan Lowe, it was a fantastic feeling to create a solution to some of the problems we had seen from our joint experiences within the NHS, solving clinicians’ digital issues and creating an efficient and effective service for patients as a result. Visionable has a great mission statement: “To make healthcare more equitable and accessible for every person on the planet.” If we make this a reality, I suppose it will be my career-defining moment.

How would you define your leadership style?

Human. That’s about it!

I don’t believe in leadership as a super-human feat. It’s a human endeavour — both for the leader and for the people who wish or need to be led.

“I don’t believe in leadership as a super-human feat.”

I’m quite results-driven, but I try to keep in mind that results only matter at an overall level. It’s not about my or your results, it’s about our results and how we worked as a team to get them.

What book is on your bedside table?

I’ve recently finished The Revolt of the Public, by Martin Gurri — a man who used to work for the CIA. It looks at the recent rise of populism across the globe and how we got to where we are now. It’s sobering, but also heartening, as one of the book’s key conclusions is that restoring a sense of community will help us heal.

And I’ve got a second one: The Future Starts Here, by John Higgs. It’s a great read about what’s in store for us in the coming decades and why there’s hope.

What is your Golden Rule?

Just tell the truth.


Rapid Fire

Q: In the film about your life, which actor would play you?
A: Sidney Poitier — who, I’m afraid, is in his 90s and still better-looking than me!

Q: Most useful app on your phone?
A: Pinterest — I spend too much time flicking through pictures of synthesisers — and my podcast app.

Q: If you had a spare hour each day, what would you do with it?
A: I’d spend half an hour playing my saxophone, and the other half trying to finish a poem I’m writing. And my synthesiser would probably call to distract me at some point.

Q: Who is your hero(ine) of fiction?
A: I’m going to cheat and pick someone from real life: Rosa Parks, the woman who sat on the bus.

Q: What has your family taught you that business couldn’t?
A: Becoming a father is a very humbling experience — or at least it was for me! The more they grow, the less I know.

Q: What’s your favourite restaurant?
A: Le Polidor in Paris. It looks like something out of the 1920s and has the best garlic soup I’ve ever tasted.

Q: And your favourite film?
A: It’s a tough one — but probably Blade Runner, closely followed by 12 Angry Men.

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