David Roberts CBE is the chair of Beazley, one of the world’s leading speciality insurers, and Nationwide, the building society, as well as the vice-chair of NHS England. Prior to this, David was the group deputy chair of Lloyds Banking Group, an executive director at Barclays, and the chair and CEO of Austrian bank BAWAG P.S.K.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
For great board meetings, you first need a great board.
I’ve worked with quite a few different types of boards — supervisory boards; management boards; unitary boards; boards of private, or listed businesses, or public services… — and my takeaway is that, whichever way it’s set up, it takes two things for a board be great:
- There should be mutual respect between the executives and non-executives — each recognising that they have different, equally valid roles to play. When I’m meeting with prospective board members, I look at the way they operate just as much as at their skills: I want to be sure that they’ll bring their best self at the meetings; not just their smartest self, and that they’ll listen and reflect on the perspectives of others whilst bringing their insight to the conversation.
- Then, you need a medley of brains and views in the boardroom — people who think differently and can bring multiple perspectives thanks to their various experiences. You are looking for cognitive diversity; in practice, you can only achieve that through diversity at other levels, be it gender, ethnicity, or disability.
“When I’m meeting with prospective board members, I look at the way they operate just as much as at their skills: I want to be sure that they’ll bring their best self at the meetings; not just their smartest self.”
Once you’ve got that, you can move on to making the meetings themselves great. And here, too, a few things are needed:
First, good board information. Yes, directors should do their homework — they must be curious about the market, competition, technology and other trends and make sure they understand the industry — but they can only do that if the board papers enable them to get an accurate look of the organisation and its challenges.
For that to happen, you need concise reports that draw out the two or three things board members should know. Don’t include unnecessary details that’ll take you away from what needs to be tackled — shorter board papers lead to better, more focused board conversations. And don’t just assume that someone wants whatever data is in there, either: you’d be surprised by how much you can slim down board papers before directors start asking for more detail.
- Second, time for discussion. What drives me mad is spending my weekend reading the board papers, only for someone to waste 20 minutes rereading one of these papers to the board during the meeting. Instead, use that time for things that add value, such as bringing in external input or even just giving board members more time to debate around the issue.
- And finally, an environment where executives feel safe. Boards always say, “We want to know what’s keeping you awake at night,” but, too often, as soon as management opens up the directors jump on them — and meetings that devolve into interrogations aren’t conducive to transparency and openness.
“Don’t just assume that someone wants whatever data is in there: you’d be surprised by how much you can slim down board papers before directors start asking for more detail.”
What board-level lessons have you learned from the pandemic?
My starting point was my experience from the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, where I learned four rules to follow when the situation gets tough:
- Set a system of governance — that is, how you’re going to interact — appropriate for the new environment you’re in: high in frequency, short in duration, and respectful of management’s time. For example, move to weekly board calls where you can ask all your questions instead of bombarding the management team either during the week or during your monthly meeting.
- Look around corners. The management team will be so focused on the day-to-day that what they need is perspective on what’s coming next. Ask board members about what they are seeing or hearing elsewhere — it needs to be a two-way street where directors convey knowledge between organisations.
- Look after the mental wellbeing of the executive team. Everyone will be under immense pressure, and sometimes it’s your responsibility to send people away for a day off.
- Get out of the way. Even if the business is fighting for survival, is a daily board call using so much of management’s time really the best answer? Trust your team with the day-to-day operations.
Importantly, you can’t manage crises as incidents — you must think of them as campaigns, where you look at the issue of the day, of the week, of the month, of the next three months… with different cells of people looking at each of these different time horizons and scenarios. And you need to rotate these people, because no one can work at that intensity without burning out. None of this is obvious, so seek help if you need it; for example, in the NHS, we asked the Army to teach us how to run a proper campaign.
“You can’t manage crises as incidents — you must think of them as campaigns.”
What would you like to bring from the virtual boardroom into the physical one?
The first time we got back together in a room there was warmth that reminded me how much of a social animal we are — and that old-fashioned meetings aren’t going anywhere! That said, there are some aspects of “the great remote experiment” that I’m keen we don’t lose.
For starters, remote meetings are more democratic. A board can be an intimidating environment where not everyone dares speak, but, in an online setting, raising your “hand” is only one click away — which can be liberating for some directors. As a chair, you’re always trying to identify new ways you can help people to best contribute, and this is a big one.
“A board can be an intimidating environment where not everyone dares speak, but, in an online setting, raising your ‘hand’ is only one click away — which can be liberating.”
Remote meetings also speed up the transactional parts of the job. Everything that’s more administrative is usually dealt with more efficiently on an online call — not to mention that they’re easier to start on time. This goes to show that there isn’t a superior medium but that each has its strength and will be more or less appropriate depending on what’s on the agenda.
And lastly, remote meetings allow to consume and discuss information in a more effective manner. Want to highlight something? Just share your screen. Want to raise a point without interrupting? Just drop a note in the chat. These are yet other ways in which digital meetings give people ways to contribute that fit their preferences — and which allow you to get more from your directors.
“When you mix the best of both worlds, you can get powerful results.”
When you mix the best of both worlds, you can get powerful results. For example, we’ve completely transformed our board training with a hybrid model: The meetings where we used to sit and listen have been replaced with podcasts and videos that we can consume at our own pace, whilst in-person sessions are now only for questions and answers. It gives you access to a roster of amazing people you’d struggle to all get in a room at the same time, it provides new directors with a library of content they can refer to, and the whole thing is so much more engaging.
What book is on your bedside table?
I tend to read multiple books at the same time.
At the moment, it’s The Premonition, by Michael Lewis — the story of the doctors and scientists in the US who saw the pandemic coming and attempted — unsuccessfully — to make their government take it seriously.
And the second is a biography of Ulysses S. Grant — widely seen as the worst US president. It brings a different narrative to that common view.
What is your Golden Rule?
Anyone can challenge anyone on anything — as long as they do it respectfully and with the right motives.