60 seconds with… Sir John Chisholm

Chair of the board

3 min read

Sir John Chisholm is Chairman of NESTA and the Medical Research Council and the former Chairman of QinetiQ.

What would make UK boardrooms more effective?

I have a radical idea that I believe would make a difference. I have been on company boards for over 25 years and whilst non-executives today take their role far more seriously than ever before, there is a danger that they have drifted away from the business. Governance and risk now dominate the board agenda and for good reason, but relatively little time is given to discussing organic growth opportunities and how to build the business, not just protect it.

I believe what we need is an Enterprise Committee, comprising people with a deep knowledge of the market and the customers, people who understand the fundamentals of the business and how to grow it. The Enterprise Committee would report to the board and ensure that value creation and not just value protection, stays on the agenda.

What single government policy change would you like to make to support British enterprise?

I’ve come to realise over the years that the government can’t do nearly as much as we may think. In a global and interconnected world, there are few levers that are wholly within their power to control. And this may not be such a bad thing. Governments inhabit a parallel universe, responding to political, not economic capital so arguably the less they control the better.

That said, through my experience at QinetiQ working on both sides of the Atlantic I have seen the very positive impact that government procurement can have on innovation and this is certainly something Britain could learn from. In the US, Congressmen are constantly on the look-out for bright ideas they can sponsor, and procurement decisions are not solely the preserve of an individual minister as they are in the UK. Having individual Congressmen who will champion projects and innovative ideas has a tremendously positive flow-through effect on the economy.

How will the UK’s global influence change over the next decade?

The BRIC countries are increasing their importance and influence around the globe and the influence of the UK and US is declining. But the rise of the BRIC economies doesn’t mean that we can’t prosper too. Right now we are suffering from years of spending beyond our means and this needs to be redressed. We need to redefine ourselves as innovators but there is no reason why the prosperity of the BRIC economies should be at our expense.

What was the smartest business decision you’ve witnessed?

QinetiQ, a multi-billion dollar business, may be known for its technology but the truth is we built the business with powerful branding. Companies that do branding well are clear about what they are offering and give their customers a reason to choose their product over another — ever more important given the plethora of choice in most markets. It was the QinetiQ brand that our clients were signing up to, not just the technology, and I believe that all businesses can benefit from taking the decision to build a strong brand.

What is your golden rule?

Just do it. I think it’s important to regularly refresh the executive team, to reintroduce a ‘can do’ attitude which has a tendency to erode as the years go by. Most of the time it’s easy to work out what you have to do, but making it happen is usually where the real challenge lies.

What book is on your bedside table?

As a convert to the Kindle, I don’t have a book by my bedside table! But I am reading Adam Segal’s ‘Advantage: How American Innovation Can Overcome the Asian Challenge’.

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