Kathryn Roberts: “It's a no-brainer to focus on the next generation.”

Chair of the board

4 min read

Kathryn Roberts is chair of Eversheds Sutherland (International) LLP and co-chair of Eversheds Sutherland’s Global Board. She is also a trustee of the Eversheds Sutherland Charitable Trust and the Maggie’s Cancer Centre in Cardiff, a founding member of Monumental Welsh Women, and the former chair of CBI Wales. Here, Kathryn explains the positive impact chairs can have on their organisation and wider society, and how boards can go about fostering their next generation of leaders.

As a chair, do you have any “golden rules” you try to follow in the boardroom?

Whenever possible I avoid meetings without a clear purpose — and when leaving a meeting, nobody should be in any doubt as to what’s supposed to happen next and what’s expected from everyone going forward. Peoples’ time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted on pointless discussions that don’t move the dial. An important aspect of this is ensuring that the papers are in on time so that people get an opportunity to read and properly digest the information. This contributes to better discussions as you aren’t wasting time during the meeting running through what everyone should already know, and can focus instead on healthy discussion and challenge.

“Peoples’ time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted on pointless discussions that don’t move the dial.”

I also make a point of being as approachable to everyone in the business as I can be. As chair, your job is to support and help everyone around you to build something brilliant together, and you can’t do this if you’re squirreled away somewhere — you’ve got to be out there to fulfil your role.

Finally, having been with Eversheds Sutherland for 28 years, it’s fair to say I know the business and its people well. However, having been there for so long, it’s more important than ever for me to maintain my independence, whenever possible. Therefore, when I’m involved in a decision, I remind myself that my job is to do what’s best for the firm and for its partners, who elected me to the role in the first place. Maintaining this independence is key — especially when you know the ins-and-outs of an organisation — otherwise you risk losing your credibility as chair.

What can chairs do differently to have a positive impact on their organisation or wider society? Are there examples you’ve seen?

Shortly after taking on my role, clients, colleagues and friends were kind enough to introduce me to other chairs, so that I could gain an insight into the way they delivered their role day-to-day. I learned fascinating things from each one, such as:

  • One chair defined herself as the chief custodian of the business’s culture. But she was very conscious of the fact that, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the entire leadership team to set the tone and lead by example to guarantee that the right culture is preserved.
  • Another chair had devoted his whole time in office to making his firm a Responsible Business. Prior to this, the organisation was fairly infamous for having few qualms related to its social conscience, but by placing ESG at the centre of its business’s strategy, he managed to utterly transform it.
  • Yet another was determined to change perceptions that his firm worked people too hard and was not an enjoyable place for its employees — as they feared not only burning out staff but also losing key institutional memory and jeopardising their ability to attract top talent. Ultimately, they were successful in their endeavours and improved employee wellbeing.

My main takeaway from these conversations was how much potential there is in the chair’s position. Far from a passive supervisory role, it’s a powerful platform from which you can take action and achieve a long-lasting impact on the culture of the organisation.

“It’s a powerful platform from which you can take action and achieve a long-lasting impact on the culture of the organisation.”

Which female leader that you’ve worked with has inspired you, and why?

Women like Amanda Blanc, CEO at Aviva, have been inspiring through their bravery in calling out misogyny when they see it. I’m also inspired by Liv Garfield, CEO of Severn Trent, who’s been leading the way in constructing diverse boards; as of a couple of years ago, they had surpassed over half of their board being female.

If you could make a single change that would make boards more effective, what would it be?

As I see it, the board must always be proactively engaging with the next generation of leaders working their way through the business, so that they have an opportunity to not only inform the agenda, but also the strategy and the plan for delivering it.

A few years ago, our executive team set up a Shadow International Leadership team which mirrors (as far as possible) the discussions being held at the level of senior leadership. Their input has been invaluable, especially as a sounding board. For example, coming out of the pandemic and trying to strike the right WFH balance, our Shadow team sense-checked the proposals and helped us reach the right decision. And our chief executive makes a point of attending these meetings, giving those taking part regular opportunities to both learn from and influence the CEO.

We should think of the younger generation as “activist investors” who are drawn to employers whose values match theirs and are looking to the boards to set a strategy that they can support and relate to. They will eventually take over as the next decision-makers, and we need to foster them as such.

Longer-term, the advancement of AI is going to fundamentally change how we work, by automating many of the less engaging and repetitive tasks. But you’ll need the right kind of people for that new paradigm — those who can analyse information and engage with clients, colleagues, and digital tools to get the best out of them. If boards want their businesses to be capable of grasping these opportunities that lie ahead, to me it’s a no-brainer to focus on the next generation.

“If boards want their businesses to be capable of grasping these opportunities that lie ahead, to me it’s a no-brainer to focus on the next generation.”

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