60 Seconds With… Sir Brendan Barber

Chair of the board

3 min read

Sir Brendan Paul Barber is chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) Council. He is a former General Secretary of the United Kingdom’s Trades Union Congress (TUC), and serves on the boards of the Banking Standards Board and Openreach.

What changes would you make to UK boardrooms to make them more effective?

Anything that can increase diversity — of gender, of course, but also diversity of perspectives, of life experiences, and of cognition.

Recruiting processes at board level are increasingly systematic and risk-adverse, and that tends to produce the same kind of candidates. You’ve got to be prepared to leap outside of those straitjackets, so that you can bring in different sets of qualities and views that will illuminate the decisions that need to be made.

What are the benefits of bringing employee voice into the boardroom?

Wind the clock back 30 years and most major company boards had a Personnel director. Then, financial considerations became a lot more prominent in the boardrooms, and the focus shifted to financial engineering, investor relations, etc. If you look at the FTSE 100 today, how many companies have an HR director on their main board?

We did some research in ACAS around productivity, and there are so many human factors that are crucial to better performance: a sense of fairness, trust between colleagues, the mediating skills of line managers… Yet, I’ve sat in meetings where none of these questions were brought up. Boards will challenge, criticize, and scrutinise properly some financial issue, but when it comes to employees there’s often an expectation that the executives will sort it out — while it may very well be bringing the business down.

It may be changing again, this time in a more positive direction: in an economy where the search for talent is so hugely important, I do get a sense that businesses are once more starting to recognise that people issues are strategic.

What does the perfect board pack look like?

As board packs often reach hundreds of pages, I want each paper within to be easy to digest, with a summary of the key issues it’s trying to deal with. There needs to be a clear presentation of what has to be decided — and a visible separation between decision papers and those for background information.

Beyond the board pack, successful organisations also have mechanisms to give non-executives a real understanding of what the business is up to. I’ve seen different approaches, such as discussions after the main meeting where NEDs and the Chair have a chance — without the executives present — to exchange their views in a more informal context.

What is your proudest business achievement?

At the TUC we built an organisation called Union Learn, which is now used by a quarter of a million employees each year. They work with unions and employers to provide learning opportunities for staff, for example at lunch time or at the end of shifts. These could be anything, from top-level professional qualifications to basic literacy courses — and you’d be surprised at the number of working people who can’t read or write.

The nicest thing that happened to me was that I one day got a letter from 12 people in the Midlands. They said they had a brilliant speaker who spoke about what it’s like to go through life without the ability to read — using the example of going to a restaurant and reading the menu — and how the sense of shame and embarrassment was crippling.

They had taken up the learning opportunity because it came from fellow workers, which meant they weren’t exposing themselves to their employers. They had all signed it, just saying ‘thank you’ for what the TUC had done with the unions to enable this programme, and they finished by saying that this was the first letter that any of them had ever written.

So much of the public perception around unions is based on conflict, but a lot of successful companies achieved their success in partnership with them — building on the value they got from that relationship.

What is your golden rule?

Put as much or more effort into listening, than into talking. I’ve done a lot of dispute resolution — including in the boardroom — by simply being able and willing to listen and understand the nuances of people’s positions and perspectives.

It’s about two things: listening so you really understand, and listening so you show the importance you’re attaching to what other people are saying. We’re much more likely to respond and build bridges with someone who has given us the respect of genuinely listening.

What book is on your bedside table?

All Out War by Tim Shipman — the Sunday Times political correspondent. A fascinating account of the Brexit referendum that takes you through the dynamics of both sides of the campaign.

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