Kerensa Jennings is Group Director, Data Platforms at BT, Chair at CAST, and a Trustee at Sir John Soane’s Museum. She was previously Head of Strategic Delivery at the BBC, and held production and editorial roles at the BBC, ITN and Sky. She’s also the author of psychological thriller ‘Seas of Snow’ and a qualified executive coach. Here, she shares the advice that had the greatest impact on her career, how to best engage boards on topics like AI, and the role of serendipity in innovation.
How do we help boards engage with topics like AI which are fast-moving, complex, and technical?
Boards are made up of individuals, so there’s no easy ‘one size fits all’ fix. The solution is to understand how each board member best receives and digests information. Some listen to podcasts, some will like to read, and others will want a Q&A with an expert. For me, podcasts and newsletters like Big Brain and the McKinsey Daily Read are a great source of enrichment; they’re produced by experts who can distil the most salient points and explain complex concepts in an accessible yet comprehensive way.
With such rapid technological change, the great risk for board members is being left behind. You’re there to guide with strategic advice, and help executives deal with urgent or significant problems; if you don’t have a solid grasp of the information, or the landscape your product or service resides in, then that’s uncomfortably exposing. Organisations can help by maintaining an up-to-date selection of recommended reading for board members. This provides an opportunity for board members to deep-dive into areas where they need to better understand the vocabulary and get up to speed, and helps them to contribute meaningfully when the topic comes onto the agenda.
We’ve heard that boards are often tempted to rely on those directors with subject matter expertise when it comes to technology issues. Is this something you have experienced before?
I have been appointed to boards where I’ve had a specific digital or technology remit, and I’m happy in these situations to be the conduit to great data, people, and resources. It is, however, dangerous for any board to ever rely solely upon one person’s point of view or expertise. Nobody knows everything.
On the flip side, it’s also worth boards bearing in mind – particularly for charities and smaller organisations – that their time is extremely limited. You need to be quite thoughtful about how you give them access to information and expertise in a way that doesn’t drain their time and capacity.
What does a great board meeting feel like, and what do you think the key ingredients are?
Even though it makes for a lovely social experience when everyone in the meeting agrees with each other, it is far from a productive use of the board’s time.
The great board meetings I’ve been in have had both well-informed discussion and supportive challenge. On these boards, everyone feels empowered to ask the questions they want answers to, especially if they feel something isn’t quite adding up, or that something is missing. These boardrooms are a psychologically safe space where we can ask difficult questions, and non-executives are empowered to talk to the executive team in a frank and transparent way. This creates an atmosphere in which everyone understands that the non-executives are there to support and guide the executive team – to help them, and not to interfere.
Creativity is a golden thread through your career. How can organisations create the conditions for creativity and innovation?
It’s invaluable to open up a growth mindset for staff, and empower them to be creative and innovative outside of their day-to-day.
I came across a fantastic example of this when I was Head of Strategic Delivery at the BBC: ‘Serendipity Days’. I discovered them when I went on a fact-finding mission, visiting NPR (National Public Radio in the USA), to source ideas that could help us simplify our ways of working and do more with less. On these ad hoc ‘Serendipity Days’, staff would be given a day to do anything but work. They could paint their office, go for a walk, clear out their drawers, or get together with other members of staff and think through problems that they wanted to solve together.
This gave them more time and space to exercise their brains, and their creative muscles, in a different way. The discretionary effort that it unleashed across the organisation was phenomenal, and it produced lots of fantastic ideas for editorial content, optimising technology, and so on. Not always by design, but as a by-product of that activity.
One of the reasons it worked so well was that they gave people time and space to fail, which is so important in innovation. The executive team would regularly give one of those Serendipity Day ideas a ‘Penguin Award’ – bestowed because the idea was so spectacularly failing it would never get off the ground. It wasn’t seen as a negative thing; it was the award everyone wanted to win, because it showed you were being brave.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and what impact did it have on you and your career?
Back in the late 1990s, I was part of the launch team at ITN for 5 News and, early on, was promoted to breakfast planning editor – a role planning the daily breakfast show. It was a really important part of the schedule and a tough job, and I was intimidated. My boss at the time, Jon Williams, told me: “you can do this – it’s why you got the job”. He helped me to believe that I could, and then was fantastic in pushing me to go further and do better. That ultimately led to me moving to Sky, where I became the editor of Sunday with Adam Boulton, and later the BBC, to be Programme Editor of Breakfast with Frost with Sir David Frost. I will always remember the sense of belief and determination he helped instill in me and the impact it has had on my life and career.
What book is on your bedside table?
Besides my own book, Seas of Snow, I’ve got something of a stack on my ‘to-be-read’ list. I think poetry can be the most extraordinary tonic, so I’m currently dipping into The Poetry Pharmacy, which I’m loving. It’s not quite bedtime reading but I’ve also got Patrick Dunne’s Boards: A Practical Perspective, which I like to dive into every so often. I’m a big fan of his accessible and engaging style, and the book’s full of great advice.