Bridget Rosewell: “Most CEOs tell me they have more experiences of boards that complicate things than of boards being effective.”

Non-executive directors

5 min read

Bridget Rosewell is a director, policymaker, and economist, with a track record in advising public and private sector clients on key strategic issues. She is the chair of Atom bank and the M6 Toll, a commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission, a non-executive director of Network Rail, and a founder and senior adviser of Volterra Partners.

What items should be on the board’s agenda right now?

I can think of two.

First, people — from recruitment to retention. Right now, the workforce is splintered and culture is harder to influence, so getting your people back into the workplace and reconnecting as a team has to be the number one priority. Directors should take a realistic look at the impact of changing working conditions on productivity and output, and focus on creating an open, friendly working environment that visibly values workers — which is the best answer to the historic levels of employee turnover we’re seeing post-Covid.

Second, good governance — in essence, asking “How are we making our decisions? Have we got it right?” Governance shouldn’t just be a tick-box, but a chance to check how well your board is operating. For example, are we recording our decisions well enough for our audit trails? Or is the balance between non-executives’ and executives’ workloads right?

“Sometimes, boards focus so much on the tangibles and the statistics that we forget to consider the human side of the business.”

I’m a fan of board effectiveness reviews (done well) for this reason. They often reveal problems you didn’t consider beforehand, such as interpersonal disagreements or distrust between certain board members and can address the sort of issues that fly below the radar. Sometimes, boards focus so much on the tangibles and the statistics that we forget to consider the human side of the business, and the human error that can creep in at every level of an organisation.

And what will be the big agenda issues further down the road?

Pre-pandemic, CO2 levels were the focus of everyone’s environmental concerns. As we move on, air quality, NetZero, and COP26 will remain crucial, but biodiversity will, I think, become the biggest talking point due to its immediately tangible relevance for all forms of life.

After that, security. Cyber-security, especially, will continue to loom large due in part to the rise of homeworking. And supply chains will come under heavy scrutiny as we grow aware of the consequences of long supply chains, how susceptible to disruption they can be, and the dangers of over-reliance on multiple nations with diverging interests.

“It’s difficult to monitor sensitive data from far away, let alone your workers’ behaviours.”

In the banking sector, especially, there are major concerns surrounding the privacy and security threats that homeworking brings with it, which suggests it may not be a long-term solution: it’s difficult to monitor sensitive data from far away, let alone your workers’ behaviours. To counter this at Atom, our chief executive proposed switching to a four-day, 34-hour working week with the hope that our employees would spend a good chunk of that time in the office. We’re now working on how to implement this model permanently, and our employee satisfaction is up to 85% (from 71%) with no impact on productivity.

How do you get your board fighting fit for these coming challenges?

Every board member we recruit needs a willingness to learn: don’t think you can come in knowing all the answers. Your task as a non-executive is to identify “pinch points” — areas where your expertise makes your input valuable— and apply it in those areas, while also being prepared to ask questions in other areas.

“Boards can be irritating, and sadly most chief executives tell me they have more experiences of boards that complicate things by being overly involved than of boards being effective.”

Boards can be irritating, and sadly most chief executives tell me they have more experiences of boards that complicate things by being overly involved than of boards being effective. It’s each member’s personal responsibility to add value to the board; not undermine or overpower it.

Board members are also collectively responsible for maintaining the health of the board through succession. Throughout the recruitment process, you must keep enough overlap between a candidate’s ideas and the rest of the board to protect the chemistry, while making sure there are enough differences in backgrounds and views to foster healthy debate.

And what can give companies a competitive edge?

Whatever the question there’s generally someone in your organisation who knows the answer. The bigger the organisation, the more likely they are to be further down the hierarchy. So, the question is: How do you leverage these skills?

I think the answer is found in flatter management systems and fostering a culture that values the insights of those at the coalface. This can be extremely tricky to enforce from an executive level, as boards think top-down, whereas coaching and nurturing workers is all about bottom-up tactics. To reconcile the two, I always encourage executives to delve and explore across the organisation, and to get people who aren’t the main reporters to the chief executive to talk to you.

Key to making this happen is the relationship between the chair and the chief executive, which needs to be two-way, with both parties willing to listen. The more open their relationship, the more likely it is that the next level down will behave the same way, allowing people further down the structure to get their ideas across to the managers.

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What about ESG and its power as a value creation lever?

You have to look at the components in isolation to see their true value.

  • E: This influences how you think about everything, from the product and supply chain to the way your employees get to work in the morning. Often, it can feel like the decisions here are beyond your control, but if you get these talking points on the agenda, you generate discussions that benefit not just your organisation but the community it exists within.

    Innovation can spring up out of the least obvious areas. For example, your board might consider switching to electric haulage vehicles to reduce emissions, but then you realise this also produces real savings up your supply chain due to congestion charges, tax, and increased weight efficiency. Focusing on less strictly business-minded problems will help you find new ways to tackle your other, more business-focused issues.

  • S: Post-pandemic, we’ve noticed an increased focus on people. It’s well documented that putting people front and centre has a marked effect on productivity and retention. Making them feel included and valued, and allowing your people to be people, not cogs in a machine, makes workers more flexible and more motivated.
  • G: Governance is more a way of avoiding value destruction. It’s hard to see directly where good governance adds value when everything runs well and there is no disruption, but its absence is quickly felt: it’s rarely obvious that you’ve made the right decision, but it’s very clear when you’ve made the wrong one.

What book is on your bedside table?

Termination Shock by Neil Stephenson, and Breath by James Nestor. The first is a beautiful Sci-Fi novel about geoengineering, climate change, and geopolitics. The latter is a treatise on how to breathe properly and the surprising importance of breath in general.

What is your Golden Rule?

“Remember that I don’t know much.”

As a non-executive, you’re not there every day and you don’t know everything that’s going on — so don’t act like you do. You need to be willing to grasp the nettle when necessary, but must never be too eager.

This interview was conducted by Niamh Corbett and Maximilien van Gaver.

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