60 Seconds With… Sue Murphy

Chair of the board

4 min read

Councillor Sue Murphy CBE, is Chair of LTE Group, an elected member of Manchester City Council, a Labour and Co-operative Party Councillor, representing Brooklands Ward in Wythenshawe, and Deputy Leader of the Council. Sue is also Deputy Chair of the Local Government Association, chair of Trustees of MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health), a director of CLES (Centre for Local Economic Strategies), and Chair of Trustees of the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund.

What change would you make to boardrooms to make them more effective?

I attend a lot of very formal meetings where I’m left thinking “can we not just get on with it?”, so I’d focus on the pace and the structure of the meeting. You need to mix the agenda up so there’s a decent ebb and flow of energy and provide space for free discussion as well as regular breaks.

I’d also look at the balance between information you need to discuss and information you need to know. In some cases, there’s a lot of information that board members need to have for regulatory reasons, and we provide board packs electronically and include some visual reports to make this easier to digest. Most boards are improved by people having put time in before the meeting, though — reading the information and knowing what questions they want to ask.

What makes an effective Chair?

The Chair must be better prepared than anybody and must balance a lot of things. You need the ability to listen, while controlling the meeting and being firm with people when you need to. You also need to encourage debate, letting people have their say, but know when to draw a line under things and make it clear when a decision needs to be made.

Do you see any differences between the public and private sectors in terms of board diversity? What effect does this have?

I do. Neither sector is perfect, but you are less likely to see visible women in senior private sector roles. In our [LTE Group’s] case, it’s the mix that makes it work but every organisation — not just those I work with — would benefit from having a range of perspectives when making decisions. A diverse board is a more effective board.

One of the reasons I’ve seen given for not having more women on boards is “we’ve already got one”, which makes it feel tokenistic. We need to let go of that traditional idea of a board being full of men with accountancy and legal backgrounds.

It’s not easy though, and you do have to work at it. In Manchester, my political group has a policy of women-only shortlists for candidate selections. We’ve really had to force it, and it has worked. The mechanism for appointing in the private sector is very different from that, but the lesson for me was that you have to be really serious about it. You have to actively say “we are going to appoint a woman” and go out and look for good women. There are plenty of them around!

What are the benefits of bringing the employee voice into the boardroom?

I think it’s overdue in the private sector. At LTE Group we’ve got a very strong board, with staff and student governors, and governors from a wide range of backgrounds. We’ve had some excellent staff governors who’ve really contributed. It is difficult to find a way to represent the employee voice in one person though, so we’ve looked at different ways of doing it across the group — from staff councils, to engagement surveys and focus groups, as well as staff governors.

Ultimately, working together is what makes it work. If you could opt out of a decision I think that would be wrong.

How has governance in local government evolved since you’ve been a Councillor?

If you operate a cabinet system like we do [at Manchester City Council], and you’re a member of the executive, you carry a lot of responsibility and that is quite a change from when I first started out. Even as a local councillor, you have a much greater ability to influence now than when I was first elected.

Devolution is driving this to an extent, but it’s also because the decisions we’re making now, under austerity, are far more difficult. There’s never been an easy budget in all my years in local government, but it’s incredibly hard at the moment. Some of those decisions, about adult social care for example, are literally life and death.

How important to a board is it to have good information?

I think it’s really key, in particular when it comes to making decisions. You can’t get a really big decision right if you get all the information at the end of the process; you have to have seen how the information has developed, and lived it to a certain extent. The journey helps you make a better decision. When we’re getting close to a decision point, the choice of language makes a difference too. I use the term “decide” rather than “approve” to make it clear it’s the final stage, but also that there’s an active role for the board to play in it.

It’s not just about having the right information though, it’s about being confident that you’re getting accurate information as well.

What’s your biggest bug-bear around board information?

At LTE Group we look at financial performance, but we also have to look at a lot of other things — like achievement and retention rates — that relate to our broader mission. Some other boards would benefit from having a broader set of targets and measures, because if you’re entirely driven by profit you don’t have a stable organisation.

There is also such a thing as too much information!

What book is on your bedside table?

There’s a big pile of books that I’ll get around to reading at some point… but at the moment I’m reading Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘Seasons in the Sun’, which is about the period 1974 to 1979. It’s really interesting, as I was a child then and experienced some of the events. I also have a bit of an obsession with crime fiction so there’s always one of those on there. I like to alternate between something that’s doing me good, and something that I can switch off with.

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