Danuta Gray: “One of the biggest changes has been the increased breadth of topics that must be discussed by the board.”

Chair of the board

3 min read

Danuta Gray is the chair at Direct Line Group and North, as well as a board member at Burberry Group. She held senior roles at BT and Telefonica prior to this, and has won multiple business awards, including Most Trusted Leader by the Great Places to Work Institute (Ireland) and Business and Finance Business Person of the Year 2010.

Looking back at your 15 years of experience as a NED, how has the role changed and how do you anticipate it changing further?

One of the biggest changes has been the increase in the breadth of topics that must be discussed by the board. Climate has been rightly dialled up. Technology and its implications also come up more. Even the ethics of using data and AI are now a board topic.

“One of the biggest changes has been the increase in the breadth of topics that must be discussed by the board.”

In turn, that greater diversity of topics has led to a greater diversity of board members; not just of gender, but also of experience, thought, style, as well as sector representation. To give you an example, one of the first boards I worked with was in financial services. They were great people, but they were pretty much all accountants by training, and also mainly men. I didn’t come from accountancy, and that allowed me to speak more about customers, people, and technology, and to bring a different outlook.

Another way in which boards have changed has been in their style. Fifteen years ago, they were more traditional and formal in how they conducted meetings. These days, there is less formality and greater engagement with executives.

Many organisations are saying that agility is top of their agenda for 2022. What does this mean for large organisations?

There is an agile methodology, and there is an agile way to work. For me, it is all about being nimble and increasing the pace at which you can respond to the market and your people. If you can reduce the time to bring something to market, get feedback, and learn from it, then you save time and, by extension, money.

One of the keys to being agile is testing and learning rapidly what works. For example, early in the pandemic, we tried short board calls to support the executive team. These were particularly effective, so we’ve retained that meeting format to stay in touch with the business and keep up with training.

Do board members also have to be agile?

They should, but they must also take care to not get too much into the detail or try to impose their own preferred agile practices or methods to the management team — the board’s job is to be on top of the business, not in it.

“The board’s job is to be on top of the business, not in it.”

The key thing for the board is to understand what the purpose of becoming more agile is and what the organisation is trying to achieve through that, rather than assessing how the executives are changing their ways of working.

Are decision papers the most challenging reports coming up to the board?

Not necessarily. The most challenging reports can be where there are tough decisions to make that are marginal. However, papers “for information” or “for noting” can raise some challenging issues or differing views. Overall, the role of the board is to support the executive in making challenging decisions by providing a breadth of experience and diversity of perspectives.

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What book is on your bedside table?

I usually buy the book and then get the audiobook to listen to, which is great for when I’m in the garden. And I don’t ever have one book; often, I hear someone interesting on the radio and I’ll buy their book as a result.

At the moment, I’m reading The Second World War by Antony Beevor, Agent Sonya by Ben MacIntyre, The Age of AI by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher, as well as And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

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