60 seconds with… Steve Varley

Chair of the board

3 min read

Steve Varley is EY’s UK Chairman and Regional Managing Partner for EY UK & Ireland. Steve is Chairman of the advisory group at the British Museum, sits on the Corporate Board at the Royal Academy of Arts and has been appointed a Business Ambassador for the professional services industry by the UK Government.

If you could rip up the rule book, what would good governance look like?

In my ideal boardroom I would have directors with diverse mindsets and a board that balances support and challenge. They would focus on the future, not get stuck in the past. And the board would get out onto the front line to really engage with the drivers of value in their business.

At EY, a third of our board are women. And I’m a strong believer that a board’s effectiveness is proportionate to the quality of the relationships between its members — and that doesn’t happen by chance.

We’ve made a conscious effort to build these relationships and travelling as a board to visit our key markets provides a great opportunity to really get to know one another. Of course, there’s a fine line between being cohesive and cosy and it’s the Chairman’s job to stay alert to this. But in my experience, it’s hard to provide constructive challenge until you have the foundations of a solid relationship in place.

How important is information in the boardroom?

It’s critical. And it’s something we’ve highlighted in our report Board Effectiveness – Continuing the Journey that we published in April with The Investment Association.

There needs to be a balance of quantitative and qualitative data, and information that looks forward as well as back. It’s all too easy for boards to get stuck looking through the rear view mirror.

What government intervention would you welcome to support British enterprise?

I would do more to boost British exports and I would start by reviewing who our future trading partners should be. 50% of our exports go to the Eurozone but with Europe suffering and with no let-up in sight, we should be focusing on trade with the fastest-growing markets in the world and re-establishing our ties with the US. I’m not anti-Europe. I am pro a reformed Europe, which I think Britain should play a lead role in shaping. But I think we should set our sights beyond Europe to position us for where growth will be coming from.

The other government intervention that I would welcome is greater investment in non-academic skills to get our 16–25-year-olds job-ready. When you look at the impact that Jaguar Land Rover and Dyson have had on job creation for young people, you realise that re-establishing manufacturing excellence outside of London, is where we should be focusing — and we need the people with the skills to make this possible.

What sectors would you back for the next decade?

I can tell you which sectors I’d like to see succeed and that’s high-value manufacturing and technology. They create wealth, jobs and utility.

What book is on your bedside table?

I have two on the go. The first is the autobiography of the Brownlee brothers Swim, Bike, Run. My father-in-law used to coach them so there’s a family connection. But that aside, I’m an aspiring triathlete myself and I think they are great role models for my children.

Although not strictly a book, the other thing on my bedside table is a series of documents on UK Constitutional law. I was on the touchline with another father a few weeks ago and we were speculating about what would happen if no clear majority came out of the election, which made me curious to know the facts.

What is your golden rule?

You can’t talk your way out of what you’ve acted your way into. 

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