Simon Walker is Director General of the Institute of Directors. Prior to this he was CEO of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital, Director of Corporate Communications & Marketing at Reuters, Communications Secretary to HM The Queen and a special adviser in the Prime Minister's Policy Unit.
What would you do to make boards more effective?
I’d improve the quality of information they receive. Boards are drowning in information and paperwork – too much information is as dangerous as too little and many boards struggle to see the wood for the trees.
Has the way boards operate changed much in the last few years?
There is a tendency for boards to spend ever more time box ticking and verifying their compliance at the expense of talking about the real business issues. This is a trend that can probably trace its roots to the Sarbanes Oxley Act in the US, just over a decade ago. Boards need to get the balance right or they’ll cease to add meaningful value.
How do you see the role of the Company Secretary?
The Company Secretary is the custodian of good practice – the conscience of the company and the board. This is not a job one can do well by rote: it’s all about being on the right side of fine lines and close judgements. And I’ve had the benefit of working with some outstanding Company Secretaries who were both efficient and thoughtful.
Alongside the CEO, the Company Secretary holds one of the few posts that can cut across all departments. From HR, to marketing and IT, there is a natural tendency to become absorbed by departmental objectives and the Company Secretary can play an invaluable role in helping to align the organisation to a common purpose.
What single government policy change would you like to make to support British enterprise?
I would support massive deregulation and remove any barriers to starting up and growing a business. But in general, I think the government is going down the right track. We can’t live beyond our means forever, spending £4 for every £3 that we have, and I applaud the government’s commitment to reducing the deficit.
However, beyond reducing the debt burden and creating a conducive environment for business, I don’t think it’s the job of government to design our future. British enterprise needs to take the lead in building a healthy and prosperous economy and the government needs to remove the barriers. Here at the IoD, I feel it is our role to inspire the next generation and to communicate that there’s nothing more exciting than starting up your own business.
How will the UK’s global influence change over the next decade?
Our current pace of decision making is holding us back. If we’re messing around for two decades debating whether Heathrow should be a serious international airport whilst the Chinese are building a new one each month, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict how our influence will change.
So as for our global influence, that doesn’t leave us in a great place. But there’s still hope and still time to get things right.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve witnessed?
When I was at British Airways at the end of the '90s and business passengers were leaving BA in their droves, Bob Ayling took a bold decision that transformed the fortunes of the business. Against the advice of all of his engineers and technical staff, he announced to the press that BA would be introducing flat-beds for business class passengers within 6 months. His colleagues had already warned that it would take years of research and development and require huge and impractical levels of investment. But 5 months and 3 weeks later, flat-beds were introduced.
His decision saved BA and gave us a three year lead on our competitors – which just goes to show what you can achieve if you put your mind to it!
What book is on your bedside table?
I’ve always loved poetry and an anthology I often turn to is Other Men’s Flowers, put together by Field Marshall Earl Wavell. Lots of books come and go, but that’s the only one that stays.
What is your golden rule?
I think there is wisdom for all leaders in this quote that my wife showed me from Henry V: "In peace there's nothing so becomes a man, As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger: Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood."
I can’t stand the idea that business leaders should be hectoring bullies. There are times that call for resolve but there are also times that call for modesty and humility. The leaders I admire moderate their behaviour to what the situation requires of them.
And finally, if you could rip up the rule book...
I would empower staff at the coal face. I would make sure local teams could use their judgement to gauge what their customers want, so they can run their operations as they think best.