60 Seconds With… Vagn Sørensen

Chair of the board

3 min read

Vagn Sørensen is Chairman of SSP Group PLC and a Senior Industrial Advisor with EQT Partners. He is a Non-executive Director of Air Canada, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited and Lufthansa Cargo AG and has previously been the President and CEO of Austrian Airlines Group and the Chairman of the Association of European Airlines.

If there was one thing you could change to make boardrooms more effective, what would it be?

There are big productivity gains to be had by using the skills and competencies of individual directors more. 

In North America, boards work with more and more specialised committees tailored to meet the needs of each particular company and its agenda. For example, an environmental committee gives the other directors tremendous comfort, knowing that they have an expert who has really delved into an issue.

You have experience of many boards. What have you seen that made you think ‘that was good, others could benefit from this’?

In North America, again, the directors and management might meet at 1pm the day before a board meeting, have their committee meetings followed by a dinner. The next day, the board deals with the committee reports first, which brings everybody up to speed, and then gets down to the main board business. This allows you to bond with people and have informal discussions, and the chairman can chat to the management as well as the CEO.

I changed a board I was on in Europe from a stressed, five-hour timetable for board meetings, to a more relaxed and informal North American style, and it changed the board dynamic dramatically.

Boards have changed over the past few years. What has been the most notable change you've seen?

There is a much greater focus on value creation. If I go back five or ten years, everything was compliance and governance focused. That has settled down now and we’re looking more at how a board can create value. That’s a positive change.

This has been influenced by Private Equity. You have a lot of companies that used to be Private Equity owned that are now public, and you have a lot of people who’ve spent time in Private Equity owned organisations now in the boardrooms of listed companies. I think the cross fertilisation has been really positive.

What’s your biggest gripe about board information?

Sheer volume and lack of clarity. It’s okay if there’s a lot of information, I can live with that — although a good Company Secretary might reduce it. But what is super important is that the board know what is wanted of them.

Board Paper Software, like Board Intelligence, have really helped with that. They provide structure and accessibility.

The funny thing is that even small companies can produce extremely long board documents. But if there’s a good Company Secretary, over the years he or she learns how it should be done and how information should be summarised.

What’s the smartest business decision you've made?

My best decisions are people decisions. When you get a great leader, a dynamic kicks in. People want to be alongside winners - so a good leader attracts much better resources than a poor leader. It’s just the way it is.

What is your Golden Rule?

My Golden Rule is also around people decisions. When your instinct tells you that you should change leadership, you should do it right away. That’s a Private Equity rule, but it’s really true. You are often too late with your people decisions, and you don’t do anybody any favours by delaying.

What book is on your bedside table?

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. I’m a huge fan and this is a thoughtful book that can be read from many different perspectives — including a business perspective.

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