Jill Shedden MBE: “Non-executives need to turn up as people, rather than their CVs.”

Non-executive directors

4 min read

Jill Shedden MBE is Chief People Officer at Centrica and a non-executive director at Thames Water. Here, she shares the secret to a board that’s greater than the sum of its parts, how technology has exposed the lack of value in some board meetings, and her key learnings from Centrica’s recent operating model transformation.

What’s been the most defining moment of your career so far?

  1. I remember being a young graduate and the people around me were fantastic in giving me opportunities and catching me if I fell. Those who support others early on in their careers aren’t valued as much as they should be, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without those people taking the time to help me and show me what good looks like. In those early years, success builds confidence, which in turn builds capability. I think we have to turn on its head the notion that you recruit people who turn up fully-formed. Capability can be developed and honed over time.
  2. The penny-drop moment when I realised that HR isn’t about “doing nice stuff”, it’s about creating an environment that allows people to be the very best they can be. There is such a strong connection between how you feel when you're at work and the results that you actually achieve; if you feel you’re adding value and enjoying it, you’ll give more without even realising it.

“I think we have to turn on its head the notion that you recruit people who turn up fully-formed. Capability can be developed and honed over time.”

What would you change to make boards more effective?

I’d ensure the individuals on the board use their skills in a joined-up way, as a team. Non-executives can tend to turn up to boards as their CVs rather than as people. Often, although the board is a highly competent and capable collection of individuals, it isn’t a team and as a collective it isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, so something is going wrong. So how can the board – and the organisation – become a team? Simple – they need to invest the time in getting to know each other as people.

Sometimes we can focus too much on performance vs corporate governance codes rather than fundamentally on whether the board has added value and if there is space in the agenda for the board to add that value. For example, when it comes to the board review, we should be asking simple questions: Has that person added value? Do the board members know each other?

Thinking about the information that the board receives, what would you change to make it more effective in helping them make decisions?

Technology has exposed the reality of some board meetings. For example, the ability to share comments in advance has had an impact. I’ve realised that in sharing clarification questions in advance, we cover off a lot before the meeting. Then the agenda time isn’t filled up with clarification questions, so it’s unclear what you should talk about. I think what’s going on here is that as an executive sometimes we’re not clear enough on what value we want back from the board, we’re not asking for their input and value on questions we’re grappling with enough.

Also, I’d love for papers to be half the size but twice as clear! The complexity of the papers can show an assumption that you’re in it all the time, which the non-executives aren’t. There is a huge skill in being able to put yourselves in the non-executive’s shoes and write the paper for them to get what they need from it and add value.

“I’d love for papers to be half the size but twice as clear!”

You recently led Centrica’s operating model transformation. What did you learn that perhaps surprised you?

The importance of being really clear on what you’re trying to achieve and over the years not losing sight of that. We needed to take cost out of the business – centralising things and doing them once. But then we did more and more and some of that cost-cutting ultimately harmed the business, for example in taking out training. The role of the board here is to help the exec, pull them back and remind them what they’re trying to do here.

Who should lead a transformation – Operations or People?

In my experience, organisational transformation projects need to be a synchronous effort by both Operations and HR. When tackling these projects, having a group of HR specialists to guide the people aspect of the project and operational people to ensure it’s being done with operations in mind rather than just imposed on them is vital. Any kind of agility or organisational transformation project is a change to people but within the context of an organisation. You therefore need to ensure that the interests of both are kept front of mind and are being set up to succeed.

Which female leaders that you’ve worked with have inspired you, and why?

Jana Siber and Catherine O’Kelly lead our Services and Energy businesses. And when I see them, standing in front of groups of employees, what I see is people saying, okay, I can be the managing director of those businesses.

And then Lesley Knox and Mary Francis, who used to be on the Centrica board. These were women who had gotten to their positions long before anyone was pushing for women to take senior positions. They were incredibly effective at making their points, doing the work needed, and having real presence in the room.

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