John Allan CBE is chair of Tesco and Barratt Developments, as well as vice president of the CBI. He was previously chair of Worldpay, co-deputy chair of Dixons Carphone, and CEO of Exel.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
There’s a spectrum when it comes to meeting quality — and I have experience across all parts!
First, there’s no secret trick: if you want effective meetings, come well-prepared. If management has written a great paper, laying out alternatives and the recommended way forward, and if directors have taken enough time to read it and reflect on its content, you’ve already done half the work.
Second, as the chair you must resist the urge to rush through the agenda. Instead, create opportunities for everyone to contribute — especially when the solution looks obvious to you and you think you already know what the answer is. It’s about listening and giving the floor to others.
“A great meeting creates a consensus around a difficult issue, not a consensus to have another meeting!”
Finally, a meeting is only as good as its outcome: a great meeting creates a consensus around a difficult issue, not a consensus to have another meeting! And it reaches consensus by board members progressing their thinking, not by starting the meeting with the same opinions.
How would you define your leadership style?
I try to be inclusive and people-focused.
Inclusive, because I don’t believe in rigid hierarchies. I often get some of the best suggestions and most honest feedback from people working at the stores I visit.
And people-focused, because, by definition, you can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers. It doesn’t matter how good a communicator you are: if you’re not willing to listen, to understand what people’s needs are, and then figure out how you can take the organisation forward while satisfying these needs, then how can you expect to take anyone with you? If all you have is charisma or some other mysterious leadership quality, that’s not enough.
“If you’re not willing to listen, to understand what people’s needs are, and then figure out how you can take the organisation forward while satisfying these needs, then how can you expect to take anyone with you?”
I’d argue that the need to truly understand people is going to become even more critical in the coming months, as we figure out how we get back to the office. We’ll have to think hard not only about what works for the company, but also what works for our people, or there’ll be some spectacular own goals. I suspect most of the answers are going to be hybrid — but they’ll have to be carefully thought-through ones.
What’s your biggest bugbear around board information?
If a paper comes back to the board, and it’s not what the chair or CEO wanted, they’ve probably not been explicit enough in the first place. So, I tend to be self-critical rather than blame whoever’s written the report.
“If a paper comes back to the board, and it’s not what the chair or CEO wanted, they’ve probably not been explicit enough in the first place.”
In a well-functioning company, contact between the board and management isn’t limited to board meetings. Regular interactions allow each side to share what’s on their minds, and that helps focus the information you get.
What’s the one question every board should be answering right now?
“How can we help others as we exit this crisis, both now and in the long term?”
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has weighed most heavily on the least-advantaged members of society. And when the furlough scheme ends, how many of the jobs being kept alive at the moment will disappear?
Restarting the economy is urgent, and there are things we can do right now to help those who need it most. But it’s not enough. Both business and government have to think about how we can create a future that works for everyone.
Was there a moment in your life that defines you?
There wasn’t a moment when it all clicked and I could see my destiny — I’m afraid it was much less thought-through than that!
Looking back at my career, I realise luck played an important part. I know lots of people, who are probably more able than I am, but who stumbled into bad experiences through no fault of their own — and I’ve had the good fortune to avoid such moments for the most part.
What’s your most memorable read?
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
When I got to the end of the trilogy, I felt deeply sad that I’d never be able to read it afresh again. That’s the mark of a book you’ve had a deep emotional connection with.
What is your Golden Rule?
Do as you would be done by.
We all have occasional lapses from grace, but if you treat people reasonably, chances are they’ll treat you reasonably as well.