Sir Stuart Rose, former Chairman and CEO of Marks & Spencer, is currently Chairman of the British Fashion Council and Business in the Community. He is also a Non Executive Director of Land Securities and House of Fraser.
What changes would you make to UK boardrooms to make them more effective?
In a fast-pace digital age, the businesses that will succeed will be those that can take decisions quickly — and yet boards seem on a trajectory to become ever bigger and slower.
I fear a gulf may emerge between the executive, who are hungry to drive their company forward and the non-executive, who are increasingly risk-averse and cautious. With the banking failures still fresh on everyone’s mind it is understandable that boards are concerned to avoid rash decisions and a degree of tension between the exec and non-exec can be a good thing. But ‘doing nothing’ or being slow to act is a dangerous position for a boards to take in today’s climate.
For a while at M&S you held the combined role of Executive Chairman and CEO. Looking back, what are your reflections on combining these roles and the reaction it provoked?
The reaction to combining the roles of CEO and Chairman was strange. Whilst Higgs advised against combining the roles he also advised against prescriptive rules, advocating ‘comply or explain’ not ‘comply or die’. In our case it was an appropriate short-term succession measure whilst we recruited a new CEO and a new Chairman, something we went on to do just as we said that we would.
Now you’ve left M&S are you looking for more Non-Executive roles?
For the time being I want to be more hands on but I would consider a Non-Executive position if I felt I could make a real contribution and if I had real empathy for the business.
What single government policy change would you like to make to aid recovery?
I would restructure tax to reward entrepreneurship.
Which industries would you back for the next decade?
Companies that are successful will be the ones that mix bricks and mortar with pixels. They will be the ones that truly embrace a multi-channel approach. I wouldn’t back any company for which technology wasn’t a key part of its strategy.
Who do you go to for advice?
By definition, leadership is lonely and the higher you get the lonelier it becomes. You reach a point in your career where your relationship with your colleagues changes — your work friends are no longer your friends and by necessity you become more distant. Of course you still need people to turn to for advice and there are gut-wrenching moments in any career — but once you reach the position of CEO there are few places to turn. So you develop relationships with a handful of people you know you can really trust and they’re the ones you turn to.
What is your golden rule?
I have a few! Tell the truth. Be direct. Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. And don’t do tomorrow what you can do today. Not dealing with problems and procrastinating is one of the most frequent causes of failure. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck… it probably is a duck!
What book is on your bedside table? What are you reading?
I love reading biographies and am currently reading ‘Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia’ by Michael Korda. I’m also working my way through ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’ by Simon Sebag Montifiore.