Graham Singleton is the CEO of National Friendly, an insurer specialising in health and protection insurance markets, and the former CEO of both Swiss Re’s Reassure and Phoenix’s Resolution Life. Here, he shares his thoughts on what it takes to be an agile player in a heavily regulated industry.
Three-quarters of C-suite leaders we surveyed think that improving their overly long reports is one of the top three things that’d help them be more agile. Do you agree, and what would your own top three be?
I’d like to think that the answer is “No” in the boards that I’m leading — but I do agree. In highly regulated industries, even in smaller organisations it’s not uncommon to see 100-pages long board papers. And that’s because the authors believe that, for compliance’s sake, what they put to the board has to be 100% right and therefore comprehensive. But that’s a misunderstanding of the board’s role — which is to make strategic decisions, not to manage minutia.
1. Set a process around strategy
With regards to what can help agile decision-making, first, I’d recommend setting a clear process around strategy — because having a strategy is easy; it’s sticking to it and reporting on it that’s hard.
“Having a strategy is easy; it’s sticking to it and reporting on it that’s hard.”
In our case, we start with a strategy day in September where we decide our next year’s priorities. Then, we follow by three months of iteratively drawing a plan — that is, how and when we’re going to deliver on said priorities. And then, I report to the board once a quarter on where we are vs the plan, and this will drive the conversations and debates.
2. Align your entire business around your goals
Second, invest the time in taking the whole business with you — not just your senior team.
There’s a story I like about John F. Kennedy visiting a NASA centre where he asked a janitor “What do you do here?” and that person replied, with a broom in his hands, “Well, Mr President, I'm helping put a man on the moon.” The point is that it can be tempting to try to reach the goals you’ve set as fast as you can with only a small team, but if you want to get there you need everyone else to be on the same page — be they responsible for your entire sales operations or for the mail in your post room.
“It can be tempting to try to reach the goals you’ve set as fast as you can with only a small team, but if you want to get there you need everyone else to be on the same page.”
The way we do so at National Friendly is by communicating our business plan to the staff early in January, during a meeting where we set out the story, the journey, and the role that every team will play in it. And then having the discipline throughout the year to take the time to regularly report on that progress to the entire organisation.
3. Get your board papers right
And finally, get your board papers in order. A good board paper should be about synthesising the key facts you need directors to know and the decisions you need back from the board; not about getting the board to mark your over-detailed homework.
“A good paper should be about synthesising the key facts you need directors to know and the decisions you need back; not about getting the board to mark your over-detailed homework.”
A good way to help make this happen is to require any paper that comes to the boards to have a no-more-than-one-page-long “rip-off sheet” that answers just three questions:
- “Why, as a director, am I receiving this?” This should be one-sentence-long.
- “What are the key things that this paper is addressing?” Again, this should be concise, so my recommended trick is to limit it to what you could say in a one-minute-long elevator conversation.
- “What do you want me to do about it?” It’s frightening to see how many papers can contain 40 pages of data without including an actual conclusion that says “And the consequence of all this is X, so I recommend we do Y.”
Regulators are voicing concerns about corporate reporting’s complexity, because it suggests that boards don’t have a clear view of their business or its risks. How do your reports address this, and what can those in less heavily regulated industries learn from it?
It’s the executive team’s job to keep the strategic pitch clear for the board and not dump details and compliance documents onto directors. You do need to give enough to cover your bases, but no more than that — and my advice here is to keep in mind that a board pack isn’t the only way to do it. Training sessions, for example, can often be more effective than board papers when you want to get the board up to speed on, say, the impact of a new law.
For the regulator, board packs ballooning with compliance can also be seen as a canary in the coal mine. Many pieces of regulation can ultimately be boiled down to “Are you running your business in a sound manner and doing the right thing by your stakeholders?” — and needing hundreds of convoluted pages to answer that question isn’t confidence-inspiring.
“For the regulator, board packs ballooning with compliance can be a canary in the coal mine.”
What used to be rare occurrences — pandemics, supply chain disruptions, floods, fires… — have become increasingly common, requiring boards of insurers to be more agile in their decision-making. How should their papers reflect this change of pace?
Things are moving faster than they used to, and board operations must reflect that — be it through more frequent meetings or meetings that can be called at any point to deal with urgent strategic matters. But it’s not just a matter of processes. Your board conversations and material should reflect that change, too:
- In their scope, because whilst you can’t predict what’s going to hit you, you can certainly prepare for it through risk committees, inventories, and procedures.
- And in their pace, because the flow of information is critical. You can’t build high walls everywhere to protect you, but you need to be informed as quickly as possible when something is threatening business as usual.
As CEO, what advice would you give to executives writing or presenting papers so that they can shine in front of the board?
Be crystal-clear. As a NED, my first question would be “Why are we having this conversation?” If you can’t answer that succinctly, your board paper cannot either.
“As a NED, my first question would be ‘Why are we having this conversation?’ If you can’t answer that succinctly, your board paper cannot either.”
Then, anticipate the questions that will stem from what you’re presenting, and answer them in your report. Any NED worth his or her salt will raise these questions if you don’t, and it’s going to make for a never-ending meeting — so the more you pre-empt that and make your paper close-ended, the more you make it likely you’ll get the outcome you’re advocating for.
What’s something you’ve recently read outside the boardroom that made an impact on you?
I’m going to go with a loose definition of “read”: it was seeing Amelia, this young Ukrainian girl, singing Let It Go in a bomb shelter. After making it safely to Poland, she then went on to sing her country’s national anthem at a charity concert before thousands of people.
She looks eerily unnerved in that video, singing her heart out and turning an ugly, literal life-or-death situation into something innocent and beautiful. And it just put the professional “crises” we deal with — and the way we react to them — into perspective.
This interview was conducted by Suzi Beese and Maximilien van Gaver.