60 Seconds With… Sarah Bates

Chair of the board

3 min read
Sarah Bates is the chair of Diversity Project Charity, Merian Global Investors and Polar Capital Technology Trust. Sarah is also a Non-Executive Director at Worldwide Healthcare Trust as well as a member of the investment committee of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. She was the former Chair of the St. Joseph’s Hospice Investment Panel, St James' Place plc, the Association of Investment Companies, JP Morgan American Investment Trust, Witan Pacific Investment Trust, Stena (UK) Pension Scheme Trustees and the Kings Corner Project — a charity working with vulnerable young people.

What makes an effective Chair?

My job as Chair is to get the best out of the people around the table and to keep my ego out of the way. It’s about ensuring the right conversation is being had, the right decisions are reached and that everyone has the opportunity to contribute in the way which works best for the group and the matter at hand.

Lots of people have rather strong opinions about what a Chair should do - but I’m cautious about opinions which are evidence-free or based on a sample of one. There are some who have strong views and who sometimes pursue them to the point of becoming dogmatic.

And what makes an effective board?

We need to remember effective meeting fundamentals which often get lost in board meetings. Meetings shouldn’t be too long and should have a clear purpose. There should be plenty of coffee on offer. Preparation and ownership are key, but can be found wanting. We should continuously be looking at what others are doing that works and keep refreshing.

Are expectations on boards too high?

Expectations on boards may be unrealistic. There’s a perception, in some areas, that board members need to know so much of the finer detail of their organisation that the bigger picture can get less focus.

This shouldn’t be the case. A board doing its job well should know who’s responsible for doing what and if the executive is getting the job done. If it isn’t, the board should know when to intervene and, if necessary, reassess who is doing the managing. So, board members need to be clear-sighted and well-prepared, but shouldn’t be expected to understand every last detail of their organisation’s day-to-day.

How could, or should, the role of the Company Secretary evolve to better support the board?

I was always taught by John Westhead, former CEO at Bowthorpe who’s sadly no longer with us, that you need a Company Secretary who is absolutely meticulous and will keep you on the straight and narrow. They need to understand the real nitty-gritty of the way boards operate, especially some of the more 19th-century mechanisms. Do you understand proxy voting? The company secretary needs to.

I regard the best Company Secretary as an impartial advisor. They should have an independent, contained, unshockable approach and are at their strongest when the advice they give is strictly in the interests of the company and isn’t too directional. This sort of advice is hugely important to a Chairman. Company Secretaries are now playing more of a role in formalising Executive Committees too, which is a good thing.

What’s your biggest bug-bear around board information?

Board packs not arriving where I am!

And it’s a nuisance when the really big items for discussion aren’t flagged. You may be wading through a pack, several hundred pages long, with small font and suddenly find a key point buried on page 120. By this time you’re exhausted and inclined to think that a bit of initial guidance would have been very useful.

What is the smartest business decision you’ve made?

I’m not sure about ‘smartest’ – I’ve certainly seen and made some business decisions which weren’t great! These have tended to occur when we’ve tried to do what wasn’t strategically possible and it would have saved a lot of heart-ache if I’d just said, “This isn’t going to work” at the start. No one else around the board table will be ruthless so, as Chairman, on occasion you have to be.

If you were to push me on an achievement though, I’d say I’m most proud when I’m able to get other people to think creatively and critically about what they’re proposing and planning. It’s when people use a phrase or playback something I’ve gently lobbed into the system which has been adopted more widely that’s when I think, “Jolly good – I’ve made a difference”.

What book is on your bedside table?

I just finished A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. It’s a wonderful book – quirky and with a very different view of what science fiction is about. Chambers is completely hopeful about people’s ability to work with other species and be tolerant of them.

What is your golden rule?

Never stop learning.

Also, never say behind someone’s back a thing you wouldn’t say to their face. But do be prepared to say what you think to their face!

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