Sir Peter Gershon is Chairman of National Grid, Tate & Lyle and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and its biggest defence contractors.
What would you do to make boards more effective?
All boards can be more effective. At the end of every board meeting I ask my non-executives for their candid reflections on how we performed as a board and then I debrief with the CEO who hosts a similar discussion with his executive team. This gives us real-time feedback and brings continuous improvement into the boardroom, rather than waiting for the annual board review.
I would also advise that boards heed the lessons of the governance failures of others. Take RBS, with a once over-dominant CEO or Nokia whose competitive advantage in mobile phones has atrophied. Can you be sure that your business isn’t exposed to a similar threat? How would you recognise it if it were? And what would you do differently in response?
Have boards changed much in the last few years?
The process of recruiting non-executives is now much more rigorous. The ‘old boys’ network’ has largely disappeared and boards are a much less comfortable place, which is good thing.
In terms of what we need now, we need more diversity - and I mean diversity in its broadest sense. At National Grid we take into account the thinking styles of candidates to the board and executive committee, as well as their skills and experience.
Evidence-based thinkers are excellent at distilling the facts and applying rigour to our decisions but you also need some left-field thinkers at the table. The future is rarely a straight-line extrapolation from where we are today so you need people on the board who think in diverse ways.
How important is information in the boardroom?
You can’t do the job without high quality information. And the key point here is information not data.
The author of each board paper should extract what’s important for the reader. They should not expect the reader to have to work it out for themselves.
What policy would you introduce to support British enterprise?
I’d like to see a continuity of policy between successive governments, particularly around the skills agenda. STEM subjects are vital to the success of the country but there is a gulf between what industry needs and what our education system is producing.
The skills pool can’t be fixed within any one government term so we need more cross party agreement on how to approach the challenge.
What companies or sectors would you back for the next decade?
National Grid and Tate & Lyle!
But with cyber-attacks on the rise, I’d also back companies in the information security space.
What book is on your bedside table?
Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace. It gives a frightening insight into how easy it is to walk into war.
What is your golden rule?
We were born with two ears and one mouth – use them in those proportions.