Mark Humphries is chair and NED of Vendigital, a PE-backed international consultancy specialising in operational strategy and transformation. He also chairs Wheelhouse Advisors Limited, a regulatory reporting, accounting, and tax advisory for financial services businesses and Obelisk Support, a legal technology business focused on the future of work. Mark is a former Senior Partner at Catalyst Corporate Finance (now Alantra) and the former CEO of Huntswood, a B2B professional services company focused on regulatory governance, risk, and compliance.
What can publicly listed companies learn from board meetings in PE-backed organisations?
There is a clear measurement of success for a PE-backed business: the exit strategy. There’s something to be learned from having a clear-cut end goal in mind that helps build real clarity around what needs doing and drives the speed and agility with which we then act.
In my boards, we role-play the day we’ll first sit down with our ideal investor or buyer, and rehearse what we would love to tell them about our business if they were sitting on the other side of the table. We use this visualisation technique to build an understanding of the organisation we want to be — and we work backwards from there to achieve it.
Are PE houses going to require a stronger focus on ESG measures in the future?
This is already happening. Questions about what you’re doing about the environment and your community are being asked before questions about the fund’s performance. We’re at a tipping point and the sector needs to get on board with those issues.
“Questions about what you’re doing about the environment and your community are being asked before questions about the fund’s performance.”
Just like in publicly listed companies, the underlying motivations are still a mixed bag. Some funds genuinely care about those issues; and some are paying lip service. Those that truly care, however, are becoming more prominent and attract more purposeful management teams.
What’s the single change you’d make to boardrooms to make them more effective?
In a boardroom, you often have people with different levels of emotional intelligence, and this can be a real barrier to building a highly effective board. So, I like to encourage board members to better understand the behaviours they bring into the boardroom.
Building self-awareness and having the bravery to share with your colleagues — “This is who I am when I’m my best self but, more importantly, this is who I am when I’m not my best self” — allows us to have the right conversations in the right way and move forward as a team.
What should be on every board’s agenda for 2021?
There are three key things on my mind:
- Firstly, technology will be a big part of how we navigate the year ahead — and any boards without technology strategic plans should start to worry. We need technology to help us work in a world where we won’t always be in the same room together, we need technology to hold on to some of the cost savings we’ve made in the past months, and ultimately, we need technology to improve customer gains and customer experience.
- Secondly, we’ve all had our minds reset in the past year about how we buy things or how we’d like to receive a service. As a chair, I want to know as soon as I can how our customers are feeling, what their expectations of us are and how they’ve changed. If we’re trying to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s products and services, we’re missing the point.
- Finally, the pandemic has also changed how we perceive, manage, and mitigate risk. I think it’s time to refocus our risk frameworks, reassess our tolerance to risk, and ensure we have the right escalation processes to guarantee potential risks reach the board on time.
“As a chair, I want to know as soon as I can how our customers are feeling, what their expectations of us are and how they’ve changed. If we’re trying to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s products and services, we’re missing the point.”
What’s your advice to chairs?
My job as a chair is to help govern and manage risk but it’s also to facilitate the best of the individuals around me. I’m here to enable their exploration, innovation, and creativity.
What has helped me is my commitment to learning. I’ve been back to business school a number of times throughout my career to keep my skills up to date. I recently completed a 3-month executive programme on data analytics and data science, for example, which has helped me ask the right questions in the boardroom about how we leverage data to improve operations or create a new service or product. It has also taught me not to be bamboozled by the CTO and helped me work out if I’m being led down the garden path with a particular project. Learning and upskilling is something all chairs should do.
What is decision-making going to look like in 2021?
Boards will be expected to be a lot more creative — not simply the receivers of information and the opiners of decisions. It feels like we’re in this together and we’re all problem-solving together so there’s a lot more innovation and creativity in the boardroom. It’s the chair’s job to encourage directors to lean in more and not just expect the executive team to have all the answers.
We’ve never had to be executives through anything like what we’re facing at the moment but we all hopefully have a back full of scars or a chest full of medals that make us valuable in supporting the executive team with their decision-making and problem-solving.
What book is on your bedside table?
I’m an avid reader so I’m currently reading three books.
Book one is on barbequing because I’m trying to take my barbeque pizzas and slow-cooked joint to the next level! Book two is the autobiography of Duran Duran’s John Taylor. I’m an 80s music fan and went to the same school as John Taylor so I’m fascinated to see how much of his childhood he captures. The third book is a book on the Spitfire. My 50th birthday present this year was to go up in Spitfire, which was number one on my bucket list.
What is your Golden Rule?
Do the right thing. Make sure the boardroom understands its moral compass and stays true to it without compromise. I tend to find I have fewer sleepless nights that way!