60 seconds with… Vice Admiral Peter Dunt CB DL

Chair of the board

2 min read

Peter is Chairman of The Royal Surrey County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and the governing body of Queen Anne’s School, Caversham. From 2002–2007 Peter was Chief Executive of Defence Estates, the MOD’s property arm, managing an £18bn property portfolio. He retired from the Royal Navy in 2007 and subsequently joined a number of public and private sector boards.

How do you draw on your naval experience in your role in the NHS?

When I was interviewed for a board position in the NHS I vividly remember someone saying to me: “well of course it’s easy in the navy: you just issue a command and it’s done.” But 99% of the time naval leadership isn’t about life or death commands. You lead by encouraging and explaining why something is the right course of action – and the same holds true in a business or a hospital. Success comes from good leadership and teamwork.

With experience of public and private sector boards, what are the meaningful differences between them?

The responsibilities are essentially the same but there is a difference in their application. The public sector tends to abide by all of Higgs’ recommendations – but this can result in it being overly bureaucratic, risk averse and stagnant. In contrast, the private sector has more latitude in choosing how they apply Higgs – but this has it weaknesses too. As with most things, there is a balance to be struck between blind adherence to the rule book and the application of common sense.

What makes an effective board?

There are six key ingredients for an effective board: (1) Strong leadership (2) Understanding that the board is there to give clear direction and make decisions (3) A broad range of experience coupled with common sense (4) Encouragement of free and open debate (5) High quality information on which to base your judgement and challenge (6) Regular communication to keep the board briefed between meetings.

You mention information: what has your experience been of this in the NHS?

It’s critical to have data that you can rely on and on which to base your decisions. But with all the regulatory requirements, NHS boards struggle with an overload of data. Too much information makes it very difficult to discern what really matters. And trying to maintain focus and control of your agenda is compounded in the NHS by the need to respond to wherever the media spotlight has fallen – which may be mortality rates one month and infection control the next.

A large part of the responsibility for all of this falls to the Company Secretary and doing this well is not easy.

What book is on your bedside table?

When I finally get into bed I don’t want to read anything heavy, so I’ve just finished Jeffrey Archers’s The Sins of the Father. That said, I do have a copy of Sir John Harvey Jones’s Making It Happen and All Together Now sitting by my bed. He was an incredibly effective leader, and I’m hoping his pearls of wisdom will seep through whilst I sleep!

Do you have a golden rule for the boardroom?

To have robust and open debate – and still be able to go for a beer together afterwards. When all’s said and done we are a team.

I encourage challenge but not cross-talking and I will often raise issues with management in between board meetings, which can be the most constructive thing to do.

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