60 seconds with… Tim Melville-Ross CBE

Chair of the board

3 min read

Tim Melville-Ross is Chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and President of the Institute of Business Ethics. He has previously chaired Royal London Mutual Insurance, DTZ and Bovis Homes, and been Chief Executive of Nationwide Building Society and Director General of the IoD.

What are the main differences between public and private sector boards?

There are more similarities than I first thought. Both need to steer the best path for their organisation, get the most out of their people and both rely on high quality data. But the challenges they face are rather different. For example, unlike private sector boards many public sector boards meet in public which introduces an element of unpredictability. 

You never quite know what questions might be posed from the audience and if you’re not careful it can throw you off-course. And with an open door policy there can be press sitting in on the debate. In itself, this is no bad thing. But it’s frustrating when stats and the board debate are taken out of context and published for the world to see.

How have boards changed in the past 10 years?

Long gone are the days where a board seat involved patting the executives on the head and heading off to lunch. Non-executives now recognise the responsibility and burden on their shoulders. 

The main change has been around recruiting only the very best – those who are really up to the job.

How do you see the role of the Company Secretary?

I joined Nationwide as its Company Secretary and ended up as its CEO, so the role has no bounds! 

I’ve recently started working with a Company Secretary who sees himself as a key strategic player in the organisation and his input to date has been invaluable. The role can - and should - be a path to the most senior positions.

How important is information in the boardroom?

Good information is crucial. And graphics by themselves are useless. Board papers must set out the key messages in plain English and they should state clearly the input needed from the board. Management needs to be sensitive to the difference between executive vs non-executive information; there needs to be the appropriate level of detail for each audience. 

How will the UK’s global influence change?

The UK already has a high standing, partly thanks to the NHS and our higher education system which is the envy of the world. But to keep up with the development of Chinese and other Asian universities and to maintain our position on the world stage, we’ll need to embrace a much greater degree of internationalism and global co-operation.

What is the smartest business decision you have taken?

I can’t claim responsibility, but our decision to stick with the pound was a smart one. The currency debate was happening when I was at the IoD and we were one of the most vocal proponents of keeping the pound, which was entirely at odds with what the CBI was arguing. I think we’d all agree that the right decision was made. 

The other decision I’m proud of is keeping Nationwide a mutual.

What books are on your bedside table?

I read so frequently that I tend to forget the titles. But the two books which stand out are The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, which tells the bloody story of how the Plantagenets were replaced by the Tudors.

And No Time to Lose by Professor Peter Piot, which is a personal account of the Ebola discovery through to the global struggle against HIV and AIDS.

What is your Golden Rule?

I’m afraid I don’t always keep to it... But never leave for tomorrow what you can do today.

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