Sir John Parker is Chairman of Anglo American PLC, Pennon Group and Ombu Group. He is the incoming Chairman of Laing O’Rourke and a former Chairman of National Grid, Mondi, BVT Joint Venture and P&O PLC. He has served as Chairman and CEO of both Harland & Wolff and Babcock International, and is on the board of Carnival Corporation & plc and Airbus Group.
What changes would you make to UK boardrooms to make them more effective?
I would challenge the view that every board member needs to know everything. It isn’t necessary or possible but in financial services this is increasingly the expectation. There is no need for everyone to play the whole pitch. If you’re a centre forward, you don’t try to play defence and the same is true in the boardroom. The value of a board is its collective expertise. None of us are as smart as all of us.
I would also encourage more boards to meet informally outside of the boardroom. The night before every board meeting at Anglo we meet for dinner and I’ve introduced this at Pennon too. You get to hear what your board are really thinking. And, having debated and slept on the really big issues, you’ll find a 10,000ft challenge has a way of reducing to 600ft by the time you get to the boardroom.
You just completed the Parker Review into ethnic diversity on boards. Why is this so important?
Over 75% of the revenue of the FTSE 100 comes from overseas and 20% of the UK population will be people of colour by 2030. Yet of the 1,087 director positions in the FTSE 100, only 8% are held by people of colour. And over half of the boards in the FTSE 100 are exclusively white. Boards are unrepresentative of their workforce and their customers.
Diversity of thought and culture will enrich the board debate. It’s not just that directors with different backgrounds think differently – they impact the way everyone around the table thinks too.
Given the commercial expediency of a diverse board, why was a Review needed?
We’re all creatures of habit – sometimes we need a shake!
What’s your biggest bug-bear around board information?
Information is the lifeblood of the board. But I’ve received board packs over 700 pages long, which is too much. It’s the job of the Chairman, Company Secretary, CEO and CFO to correct this.
Looking back on your time as Chairman at Anglo American, what is your proudest achievement?
I don’t think about ‘pride’ or ‘proudest’, I just aim to get the job done.
Some milestones do stand out though. A few years ago the mining crisis wiped $6.4bn off Anglo’s bottom line and hit our share price hard, putting our performance at the bottom of the FTSE 100. But we took action and within a year our stock was the top performer, not only among mining companies but across the FTSE 100. Communication is the sister of leadership and when steering the business through this period I kept that firmly in mind.
What book is on your bedside table?
Legacy by James Kerr. It’s about the success of the All Blacks and what it takes to build a winning team.
For those picked to play for the All Blacks, capability and character go hand in hand. This translates well to business. A highly intelligent executive who lacks integrity, humility and tenacity will struggle to be a broad-based leader. And, as Chairman, you need to watch out for those who will ‘kiss up’ but ‘kick down’. You may not be seeing their whole character and thorough referencing from those who have worked for them is vital before you make a senior hire.
What is your golden rule?
When the leader’s work is done, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”