Matthew chairs the Imperial War Museums and CMi, an organisation that provides C-level leaders with mentoring from leading chairs. He is a director of MW&L Capital Partners, as well as a NED and a member of the Audit & Risk Committee of Schroders and a board member of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
Having a clear agenda going in, and a clear resolution coming out. Otherwise, it’s not so much a board meeting, but a board “drifting”.
“NEDs aren’t a necessary evil, they own the outcome as much as the executive directors.”
You need everybody in the room to come:
- Having read the papers. Which, for a chair, is more involved than simply giving directors access to the board pack and calling it a day. In order to make the meeting productive, speak with other board members in advance and ensure you know what’s on their mind.
- With the willingness to get to a reasonable place. Not everyone around the table has to agree during the journey to a decision, but we certainly have to all be of one mind by the end of it.
- Aligned with the rest of the board, whichever side of it they sit on. NEDs aren’t a necessary evil, they own the outcome as much as the executive directors.
How can organisations like the IWM give appropriate airtime to all their stakeholders?
The Imperial War Museums (IWM) exist to commemorate the sacrifices and contributions made by the citizens of the UK and Commonwealth countries, and that means our board of trustees includes High Commissioners from throughout the Commonwealth. We also have representatives of many UK Government departments and the Armed Services as well as from the private sector.
“As chair, it’s my job to make sure our different stakeholders get time on the board’s agenda. But it’s the trustees’ role to help make it happen.”
As chair, it’s my job to make sure these different stakeholders get time on the board’s agenda. But it’s the trustees’ role to help make it happen — and raise the matter if it doesn’t — because only they can ensure that their stakeholders are being discussed accurately and that the issues important to them are dealt with.
Is it harder to foster good board dynamics remotely?
Zoom is the great leveller. In a remote meeting, we all occupy the same amount of screen space; we all can put our hand up at any point in time. And that helps everyone be seen and heard, and ensure we get frank contributions from the people who might otherwise feel overwhelmed in a physical setting.
“Zoom is the great leveller.”
But it also means we all can monopolise the conversation — especially since the clues that you send people to let them know their time is up aren’t as easy to pick up through a screen as they are in person. Muting your own directors is not a good idea so it is up to the chair to choreograph the debate.
As for “hybrid” models, they are fraught with difficulties. If you conduct meetings with both online and on-site board members at the same time, you’re either going to struggle managing too many groups at once or end up leaving one group feeling ignored. I’m not against having meetings where we’re all in the room together and others where we’re all at home, but trying to combine a bit of both is likely to leave you with an ineffective board at best and a two-tier board at worst.
Where remote meetings will really shine, in my opinion, is AGMs. Shareholders can ask perfectly valid questions online, and it will be a great way to further democratise these events. And if they can be continued at physical meetings, so much the better.
You chair an organisation of chairs mentoring other leaders. How do you conduct a board meeting of chairs? And what can mentoring bring to the boardroom?
If you think you’re ever going to have the last word amongst a group of chairs — think again. If you’re lucky, you can maybe have the first word!
With regards to mentoring, if you want to give people good advice, you first need to find out what it is they’re worried about. So, good mentors know how to listen — and, just as importantly, to teach that skill, which is key at board level.
“There’s a strong correlation between bad board meetings and the inability — usually on the chair’s part — to understand ahead of time where people are coming from.”
There’s a strong correlation between bad board meetings and the inability — usually on the chair’s part — to understand ahead of time where people are coming from. Helping others learn to truly listen is often the first step when creating better leaders.
What advice would you give to someone stepping into a chair role right now?
Have a very close look at the pitch — because chances are it got a little disturbed over the past year, even if it doesn’t look different from a distance. How is the business really doing? Where are the individuals sitting around that table? What has caused concerns and strains over the last months, and have there been resolutions?
This pandemic has been a great accelerator — of both good and bad things — and whether it’s organisations or people, not everyone will have come out of it the same. So, you should figure out as much as you can beforehand.
What book is on your bedside table?
The Order of the Day, by Eric Vuillard. A short but fascinating book about failed diplomacy, broken relationships, and how a war can and did happen.
What is your Golden Rule?
Listen. It’s simple as that.