Mark Winlow has spent four decades in the financial services industry, serving as MD of Zurich Personal Lines and as a partner at EY, KPMG, and A.T. Kearney. He currently chairs Mactavish, Novia Financial plc, Ageas UK, and Redwood Bank.
What makes a good chair?
A chair role pulls on a lot of different skills, but key for me are the skills I honed working as a consultant — I’d advise and influence decisions, rather than tell people what to do. As a chair or non-executive, you have to remember that other people are going to run the business, and it’s not your place to say “out of the way, I’ll fix it” or “this is the way to do it.” Understanding that has helped me to set the right tone when talking to executives and non-executives.
“As a chair or non-executive, you have to remember that other people are going to run the business.”
Is it harder to chair virtual meetings?
Yes. Although remote meetings are generally more efficient, they’re less effective — discussions are often less rounded. It’s hard to spot subtle or visual cues on a video call — you can’t hear murmurs of agreement or approval because everyone who’s not talking is on mute, and it’s difficult to tell when people are getting restless or want to talk. This can prevent people from speaking up. It can also make it easier for those with big egos to dominate discussions.
How do you manage big egos in a board meeting?
As a chair, you need to put some protocols in place to act as guard rails for behaviour. Then, if people don’t behave, you need to have a conversation with them about it.
Making everyone aware that conversations should stay on topic rather than on people helps to keep conversations “adult”. I have a saying, which is “nobody is nobody.” How you interact with people is important and says a lot about you.
“Making everyone aware that conversations should stay on topic rather than on people helps to keep conversations ‘adult’.”
How do you improve your chair skills?
I’ve learned a lot from other chairs. For example, one suggested I chair an audit committee, because you have a remit to ask lots of questions and get into a lot of detail. You have greater responsibility but you’re much better placed to see what’s coming.
How has your military training helped?
I’m not a typical military person, but my training helped me to think about how I influence people and how they influence others. It also taught me about the importance of structure and having the right person in command; there is a skill to picking the right structure for the size and complexity of your team — you will need a different command structure for 120 people than you had for 50. Few leaders can lead more than 100 people, as the Romans recognised by appointing Centurions.
“Few leaders can lead more than 100 people.”
What does “good governance” look like for growing businesses?
Good governance adds value at every stage of a business’s development. In the early days, having a business coach or shadow chair, a role I’ve played a few times, can help to guide the founder or CEO on leadership and strategic decisions.
Then, the speed at which you’re accelerating and raising capital will determine when and how you formalise this, by building a board and putting more structure in place. You’ll need to evidence good governance to raise capital, as this helps to show the business is run properly, and you need to give it time — you probably need a board in place at least three years before an IPO.
At Starling Bank [where Mark was a founder and the second employee] it was a little like learning to ski; you can spend hours learning to ski well, or you can just put on your skies and lean forward. If you put the right foundations in place, you can make changes as you go along to develop good governance structures, and build a board with the right capabilities.
What advice would you give someone taking their first chair role?
Make sure everyone is pulling their weight. I have this mental image of a firefighters’ safety net, in which the dynamics in the boardroom need to keep the net held taut. If someone is pulling it too tight or not enough then there’s an imbalance within the board that needs to be addressed. And, crucially, the net needs to be portable — the business is always going to change, and the board will need to be able to adapt with it.
“The business is always going to change, and the board will need to be able to adapt with it.”