Sharon Thorne is the chair of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors. Prior to leading the board, Sharon was the Deputy CEO and Managing Partner Global & Strategy of Deloitte North West Europe (NWE), and a member of the Deloitte Global Board of Directors. She has long been a champion of Deloitte’s ambition to achieve higher representation of women in leadership globally and is an advocate for collective action on climate change and environmental sustainability.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
Before the meeting, everyone should have reviewed the information provided. For our Deloitte Global board meetings, we recognise there’ll be different levels of understanding for each topic, so we have a session beforehand to address concerns or questions about what’s coming.
If there’s too much on the agenda, some strategic items will end up being rushed, so you need to keep your focus on what’s most important. To that end, we always allocate extra space for risk updates, so anything material that comes up can fit there and not overtake the rest of the discussion. We also maximise time by circulating the minutes ahead of the meeting and approving them in advance — that lets us dive straight into what matters.
Then, during the meeting, everyone in the room must stay engaged. One of my pet peeves is when people are distracted by their phones or emails, even if they’re listening to what’s going on! Respecting others involves being fully present — and not just giving others your undivided attention, but also contributing.
Finally, after the meeting, you should reflect on what you achieved. At Deloitte, we have an executive session at the end of the meeting, and then a follow up call with the CEO before the next board meeting to look back at the big conversations we had and ensure everyone is comfortable.
What do you think will be the biggest differences in how boards operate 5 years from now?
Technology is likely to be a major disruptor:
- Remote working will become more prevalent, especially as organisations look to reduce their carbon footprints. For global businesses, this will raise some interesting questions, such as “How do you conduct an 8-hour-long meeting over 3 continents and time zones?” I’ve heard of companies splitting them across several days to avoid directors in some regions staying up all night, which brings its own issues.
- Information will become increasingly abundant and accessible, as more and more things are measured. But this will be mirrored by new requirements and ethical challenges around data and privacy. Boards will have to rethink how they approach these issues and take them even more seriously.
The other sea-change will probably be stakeholder capitalism. There’s been mounting discontent over the last decade, fuelled by people feeling left behind, and companies will have little choice but to include societal responsibilities at the heart of their strategies. Scrutiny will keep growing, and the public will want to know if companies — and, by extension, boards — have a purpose, and if they are living up to it. Is it just a statement, or does it drive their decisions and behaviours?
Are boards out of touch with society? If so, how can they re-engage?
Some boards are more insular than others. But for how long can this last?
Deloitte conducts a Millennial Survey every year, and our findings show how much Gen Z and millennials value being part of a company with a positive impact on society and the environment. It’s then simple maths: these generations represent a rising percentage of both employees and customers, and they have increasing influence with their wallets, so even the least engaged boards cannot ignore these topics.
It’s then up to the members of the leadership team to drive that cultural change:
- They can do it through diversity. FTSE companies have made massive progress on that front, but our research shows that, globally, only 16.9% of board members and just 4.4% of CEOs are women — so there’s still a long way to go. And, of course, it’s not just about gender. An inclusive environment means everyone should be able to come to work, truly be themselves, and have the opportunity to be successful.
- They can bring younger voices in. One thing that’s struck me in recent panels I’ve attended is that young people give their perspective without fear. Sometimes, board members can be too encumbered by their past and the expectations around what a director must do or say, so it’s good to get someone who can shake things up a little. Reverse mentorship, where the young mentor the not-so-young, is a tool we are using.
- They can launch special projects. For example, having recognised a need to help people around the world develop job skills and improve educational outcomes, we created an initiative called WorldClass, which aims to support the education of 50 million people across the globe by 2030. We’re also looking at our carbon emissions, as it’s clear simply offsetting our travels isn’t enough.
- Finally, they can lead by example. In my case, I’m a strong believer in sharing my “imperfections”, because seeing people who are “like you” on the board is a powerful motivator for others. I’ve been affected by impostor syndrome at various points of my career, and I try to make sure everyone knows it’s not something that should stop you. Overcoming the fear of not being good enough is not something that is only important for women — men who feel they’re not sufficiently equipped to do a job tend to suffer disproportionally from it because of the expectation society places on them.
What would your perfect board pack look like?
I’ve been on both sides of the fence. In management, I used to think, “I need to give them loads of information. They need to see everything to make the decision.” Then, as a board member, I realised you haven’t got time to read and digest it all. You need papers that are accurate, but concise — which isn’t an easy thing to put together.
You can’t get to the right decision if you don’t have the right information, but it’s not just a matter of high-quality reports either. You also need to give the board plenty of time to review the information. A great paper doesn’t do much good if it comes late to the board.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve made?
Deciding not to leave Deloitte back in 2015. I had gone for a big role, didn’t get it, and was seriously thinking about my future.
The CEO offered me another position, but I was worried it might be too peripheral. I took the role anyway and it ended up being a key function of our globalisation strategy. I was able to have a real impact, and learned a lot about stakeholder management. Those skills and the experience directly helped me get my current role.
What book do you have on your bedside table?
I’m going through a few, because I’m often on the go: Leading by Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, and Marc Benioff’s Trailblazer.
What advice would you give yourself if you were starting out again?
The same advice I now give others: believe you’re good enough and set your sights high. Ask yourself, “Why not me? Why not go for that?” Be aware of the tiara syndrome*, which is especially prevalent among women — know your worth and value, and ask for opportunities to progress and ensure you’re being appropriately rewarded.
Once you have that mindset, get a mentor to help develop your skillset. Then, find a sponsor, so you can get the opportunity to put these newly acquired skills to use.
And finally, enjoy the journey — it lasts a while!
* The “tiara syndrome” is a term coined by Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, the founders of Negotiating Women, Inc, describing women’s tendency to be overly humble about their achievements at work and their reluctance to recognise and communicate the value they add to an organisation. In the words of Carol Frohlinger: “Women expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.”