Martin Temple: “My first priority is ensuring the board gives the executives the resources to get the job done.”

Non-executive directors

4 min read

Martin Temple is chair of the Health and Safety Executive, and a NED of the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust. He has previously served as chair of EEF, The 600 Group, CEEMET, the Design Council, and the advisory board of Warwick Business School.

How would you make UK boardrooms more effective?

Having chaired boards in many countries, I value the contribution inclusive and diverse teams can make to an organisation’s success, particularly in business. You have to look carefully at the board recruitment process to ensure that, not only do we get the required skills around the table for the job in hand, but diverse experiences and backgrounds. A simple example is around the need for “experience”, which invariably excludes younger board members — despite young people’s ability to work in different ways and places, with distinct values and ways of communicating.

Secondly, whilst I understand the pressures which are very real for shareholders, there remains significant “short-termism”. Particularly in technical, scientific and manufacturing fields, businesses need to be able to have realistic timescales that allow their strategic decisions to come to fruition. Frequently, the consequence of that financial-quarter-by-financial quarter approach is that research, design, and innovation are undervalued as a business game changer.

How can you ensure meetings are effective?

An effective board meeting starts with a well-constructed agenda. Items have to be appropriate, be the right issues for the board, and be able to be covered properly in the allocated time.

Papers should also be succinct, starting with three or four short sentences outlining the questions being asked of the board and the decisions needed. They should usually advise on the decisions taken from the executive team, the proposed outcomes, and the measures for subsequent board monitoring on progress. Appendices where necessary are appropriate — I like details, many don’t.

Finally, stick to the timings. A killer to the board is presentations which exceed the agreed time and limit questions.

How can boards make better decisions?

I’m a strong believer in having a good relationship with the executives. My first priority is to see how I can support the team and ensure the board gives them the resources to get the job done. The board should be restrained from engaging in the “operational fixes” which they may be keen to engage in. However, if the executives are not delivering, there should be challenge — outlining the board’s concerns, expectations, and requirements in terms of recovery plans and reporting against a timescale.

Boards must have a good understanding of the businesses and operational challenges. Without this knowledge they’re unlikely to grasp the implications of strategic decisions. Such expertise should come initially from an excellent induction process, but boards must conduct visits to meet staff, see the facilities, and have presentations on aspects of the business operations.

I reflect with interest on some of the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve worked with. Many have come not from a business school background but from an apprenticeship. One of their keys to success was knowing how “to weigh up a job” — how much effort, resource, and time were needed. Hence, they put in the right tender and delivered to time and quality, to a satisfied customer. Boards need to know their business just as well.

   Get your free report  Lessons Learned From a Crisis  What did boards learn during the COVID-19 crisis and what lessons will they  take away into the future? Download now

You’ve sat on both public and private boards in your career. What are the main differences?

Public sector boards usually have a role they must fulfil, often in a political context. Long-term strategies are less common, because there’s frequently a requirement to respond to political transitions, sudden resource shifts, and “events”. They’re highly reactive to changes in circumstances and, conversly, surprisingly resilient.

They also tend to be “process-driven” because that’s what the system expects. Too often, decisions are influenced by the “Daily Mail test”: “What will the papers say if we make this decision? What will the public perception be?”

On the other hand, in the private sector, process remains important but desired outcomes are key. These boards are results-orientated — especially with regard to shareholders, customer satisfaction, and brand integrity.

The private sector is typically the business sector, consequently it’s more dynamic in terms of orders, prices, currencies, markets, investments, etc. Future strategic thinking, particularly on markets, investments, and competitive pressures, plays a much bigger role.

What I’ve found is that both can be of a high calibre, but we should recognise they have different roles and must work in different ways.

How effective is regulation in creating change?

Clearly, there’s lasting change from regulations. But, in HSE, we’ve realised a bigger impact on many organisations arises from the business-to-business rules — which we referred to as “blue tape.”

HSE has rewritten and simplified 80% of all relevant legislation, which reduced by 50% the stock of regulations, but businesses were still complaining about health and safety. Why? Because most rules come from insurance; the need for standards and accreditation in order to tender for contracts; fear of civil litigation; consultants trading on the fears of sometimes poorly informed duty holders; etc.

When these rules are applied in ways that are disproportionate to the occupational health-and-safety risks that businesses (particularly SMEs) have to manage, those organisations can feel there’s no real link between what the rules require them to do and what they actually need to do to keep people safe.

With care, we can turn a lot of this into positive influence over time, but it leads me to the suggestion that boards should question why an organisation does things in a certain manner. Perhaps it’s not needed and perhaps there’s a better way.

What is your golden rule?

Be reliable. Not everyone can be Einstein, not everyone can be Superman, but every person can be reliable at whatever job they do.

What you need to know, when you need to know it

Register for our newsletter to get a monthly compilation of our latest chair interviews, governance research, and upcoming webinars and events, along with weekly round-ups of the top news that matter to board members.