Kelly Devine: “Culture needs to continually evolve to meet the business needs of today, and prepare for the business needs of tomorrow.”

Non-executive directors

6 min read

Kelly Devine is Mastercard’s President, UK & Ireland, and holds non-executive roles at UK Finance, Vocalink, and Dunelm. In this interview, she gives her top tips for demystifying the board, explains how culture is central to creating competitive advantage, and shares how Mastercard went about embedding its ESG strategy into the business.

How can boards be more effective? What are the hallmarks of a good meeting?

The most effective boards have shared trust and openness that’s evident in meetings, with honest conversations where you feel like you can challenge people and have a frank exchange of views. Personally, I find this trust harder to build virtually than in-person, and when a board gets together socially it can make a big difference. Social occasions like going for a meal – sometimes with a specific topic to discuss – have been especially helpful to get to know fellow NEDs and build trust. When you’re joining a board, it helps to meet up with other board members individually to kickstart the relationship and gain a deeper sense of the company’s trajectory and how you can contribute.

It's also important to get the formal process for onboarding new board members right. When you’re joining a board in an unfamiliar sector, you’ve got to spend time educating yourself so that you can be as valuable and useful as possible. Businesses should think deeply about how they can get the right information to board members, so that they can form a strong view of the business. It’s a tricky balance to get right and shouldn’t stop after onboarding. Managing the flow of information and ensuring exposure to a range of people across the business are essential to help incoming members hit the ground running.

How are financial services companies thinking differently about innovation in the current post-pandemic macro environment?

Since the pandemic, we’ve seen two different stories when it comes to the UK consumer; one segment is incredibly resilient, thanks to savings built up over the pandemic and a strong labour market, despite the challenging macro environment. Others are really struggling with rising prices and the cost of living.

In the UK, there are over a million people without a bank account and around 13 million people whose finances aren’t resilient enough to cope with an unexpected bill or losing their job. Alongside the immense social cost that creates, there’s a real business and economic opportunity to bring people into the financial fold and make sure that we’re serving their needs.

At Mastercard, one in five of the fintechs we work with in the UK has an explicit social purpose. A fundamental part of our business model is to be inclusive and sustainable in our approach. In 2021 we introduced Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) targets into senior executives’ compensation, before rolling it out to the entire organisation last year. The reaction from our people was really positive. It made clear that everybody in the business has a stake in the success of our ESG strategy. I think it’s crucial that you embed ESG topics into the business this way, as it goes a long way in simplifying your approach and making sure that the things you say align with the way you’re actually running the business.

“In 2021 we introduced ESG targets into senior executives’ compensation, before rolling it out to the entire organisation last year.”

Where can companies look to create their competitive advantage?

Competitive advantage must come from many different places, especially in big businesses. You can’t be brilliant at one thing and middling when it comes to everything else as that’s simply not sufficient. For me, the one element that best brings all the ingredients for competitive advantage into one is culture. If you have a great culture where people feel that they have meaningful work driven by purpose, where they can build good careers and are fairly compensated, and where they feel proud of the work they do, then you will attract the most brilliant people to work for you. And, once you’ve attracted those great people, they will create competitive differentiation because that is what great people do.

“For me, the one element that best brings all the ingredients for competitive advantage into one is culture.”

Having a culture that attracts those people is absolutely essential. Culture is always front of mind for me when considering which companies I want to work with. Alongside putting the long-term happiness and success of your people front and centre, you can’t lose sight of the importance of doing the same for your other stakeholders. I don’t see how you can ever go wrong if that’s your first thought in the morning.

How do you bring the voice of customers into the boardroom?

There are many ways to do this, but ultimately it will be specific to the kind of business you are. At Dunelm, it’s helpful to bring the voice of customers into the boardroom with data, voxpops, and by visiting stores around the country. In the B2B sector it can be immensely helpful to bring in customers and suppliers to talk about their business needs, and explore how you’re meeting them. Ultimately, I think the most important thing is being willing to have those conversations and actively seeking out genuine interactions.

How do you demystify the board and create dialogue that is valuable both for the board and wider organisation?

We’ve done a lot of work around this recently at Vocalink. For example, we make sure that we hold our board meetings at different sites regularly – if you turn up somewhere once every three years, there’s a bit of drama involved and a general sense that the board are in town. Whereas, if you turn up a couple of times over a six-month period it’s less daunting and more routine, which helps to demystify the board to the organisation.

Our chair also does a lot of work in making the board valuable and useful for those within the organisation, and travels around different sites a lot even when the rest of the board aren’t there. She also makes sure to join town halls and regular Q&As; she invests time into explaining the board’s role and sharing ways to reach out to the board if there’s anything concerning you that you think the board ought to know. When we have a board onsite we’ll have lunch with employees and make connections with them – that gives you a really great grounding in the organisation and can yield fantastic insights. So there’s really quite a lot you can do to demystify the board and spark dialogue with the organisation, and a lot of this goes on outside the boardroom itself.

“There’s really quite a lot you can do to demystify the board and spark dialogue with the organisation, and a lot of this goes on outside the boardroom itself.”

Do you have any golden rules that you follow in the boardroom?

For me, it comes back to culture: you’ve got to care about your people. And culture is never something that is ‘done’ – you can’t sit down to write it out and just leave it at that. Your culture is a reflection of the world around you, and a static culture is a vulnerable one. I think that culture needs to continually evolve to meet the business needs of today, and prepare for the business needs of tomorrow whilst reflecting external expectations and standards.

I would also say that if you find yourself in a situation where you’ve lost your passion for the organisation or the work you’re doing then it’s probably time to pivot to something else. I think that if you’re going to do something, then you have to care passionately about it because you owe that level of commitment to the people you are serving.

What book is on your bedside table?

At the moment, it’s Chris Zook and James Allen’s The Founder’s Mentality: How to overcome the predictable crises of growth. Essentially, it argues that when companies aren’t succeeding as they hoped the causes are essentially always internal rather than external. As companies grow, the authors argue that accountability becomes lost, processes proliferate, and growing bureaucracy takes the frontlines further and further away from the decision-makers. Whilst scaling, it can be tricky to retain a bold mission and stay connected with your customers and people. The book has some useful lessons for both executives and non-executives on how to maintain the sense of being mission- and action-driven as you scale up and deal with the rise in complexity that comes with scale.

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