Gavin Patterson is president and chief revenue officer of Salesforce, where he also established the EMEA Advisory Board. Prior to this, Gavin was CEO of BT Group, a trustee at the British Museum, and served on the boards of multiple companies, including British Airways, Elixirr Consulting, Delta Fiber, and Fractal Analytics.
What does the board of the future look like, and what impact will technology have on it?
Trying to predict the future is always a risky exercise. But we can take an educated guess by looking at what the innovative boards of today are already doing from a technology perspective to keep ahead.
For example, live dashboards, automatically populated by AI-powered data feeds, are enabling decisions to be made and communicated in real-time. My guess is that tomorrow’s boards will increasingly make use of them — rather than the traditional hard-copy board papers that have been written over weeks, even months, and are likely to be out of date by the time boards actually sit down to discuss them.
Dashboards also focus directors on a few key metrics, which leads to better and more agile decision-making. Real-time insights can, for instance, allow directors to spot operations-threatening developments and respond to them immediately. Having access to ESG data in this format, too, presents the opportunity for boards to adjust their course to Net Zero earlier than they might have otherwise.
“As board information evolves, so will board members. They’ll be progressively asked to not just rely on the insight contained in their papers, but also to be able to respond to live data.”
As board information evolves, so will board members. They’ll be progressively asked to not just rely on the insight contained in their papers, but also to be able to respond to live data — how to interpret them, think on their feet, and formulate views. And they’ll need the right skills and mindsets to keep pace with the acceleration of digitalisation.
That’s not to say you should only hire board members who are data scientists or can code from now on. But the forward-looking chairs are looking for directors who can bring different perspectives and expertise in these areas, and who’ll be able to challenge their board on the digitalisation-related decisions that it’ll increasingly be required to make.
What role can advisory boards play in that transformation?
We are in an all-digital, work-from-anywhere world where all businesses are being radically changed by digitalisation. Those that aren’t investing in digital sales, digital customer service, digital marketing and commerce, and the Digital HQ, will lose out. Today, the competitor set in almost every industry and sector is starting to look different. All companies must adapt to survive and thrive.
But digital experts are few and far between outside of technology companies, which restricts how fast most organisations can adapt. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, technology companies can be overcrowded with said experts, which limits their understanding of the outside world. Advisory boards exist to bridge that gap.
“An advisory board can focus entirely on advice and insight, which can surface new challenges to your strategy that you’d have otherwise missed.”
At Salesforce, our advisory board members bring their knowledge of the problems that they’re facing elsewhere, helping us get a much broader view of what’s happening around the planet and pinpoint where we should focus our next efforts. And in return, they get front-row seats to the latest technological developments, which often results in them becoming the digital experts on their other boards.
That kind of symbiosis already exists within “regular” boards, of course, but the discussions that directors are having there must be spread across their multiple duties, including oversight — and they only have so much time. An advisory board, however, can focus entirely on advice and insight, which can surface new challenges to your strategy that you’d have otherwise missed.
How do you cultivate that culture of challenge, especially around technological trends that most directors won’t be experts on?
If you want challenge, you need people in the boardroom to have a deep understanding of what’s being discussed — it’s as simple as that. Chairs should have high expectations around modern knowledge and skills, and it should be very plain for directors that they’re expected to keep learning.
“It should be very plain for directors that they’re expected to keep learning.”
It’s necessary, of course, to take steps to help your board. Don’t assume that an experience of the past necessarily translates into an understanding of the present. And encourage your board to adopt “outside-in” thinking, and an external-first mindset — because outside of your organisation is where the innovation that will impact you is being created, and exposing your board to external best-practice makes for a very different kind of board conversation.
It’s also necessary to mix up the profiles sitting on your board, since a group solely made up of 50+-year-old ex-CEOs can’t be truly diverse. Having younger people on the board — especially when they are part of the people actually buying the products you’re making — can make a big difference.
What book is on your bedside table?
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by British Museum Director Neil MacGregor.
I was on the board of the British Museum for eight years, and I rediscovered there a love of history and an appreciation for the value of stepping back and seeing a much wider picture. It’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life.
What is your Golden Rule?
Design the organisation you want to deliver the mission you have in front of you and then look at what people you need to support your vision. Wanting to reshape an organisation around its people is a natural impulse, but it usually ends up with compromises and unbalances.