Rita Clifton CBE is deputy chair at John Lewis Partnership, and chair at the Forum for the Future. She also sits on the board at Ascential and the Green Alliance, and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Here, she shares her perspective on why ego has no place in the boardroom and the importance for directors to strike the right balance between “therapist” and “police officer”.
Looking back on your career, what are the defining moments that stand out to you?
Two stand out to me:
- An amazing teacher who believed in me at state school and underscored for me the difference that great leadership can make in helping people reach their potential. They helped me make it to Cambridge University even though I hadn’t even considered it.
- Early on in my career, when I realised I wasn’t particularly good at account management and moved into the strategy team, I realised I loved being nosy about people and what motivates them — that’s what fascinates me. And it’s partly that skillset that took me through to run strategy at Saatchi and Saatchi and then be headhunted to be CEO for Interbrand.
Are there any golden rules that you follow in the boardroom?
- Get the right balance between support and challenge. When you sit on a board, your role lies somewhere between policing and being a therapist. You need to recognise that everyone around the table is giving their best and working incredibly hard. Getting that balance wrong can be disastrous — too much challenge and people are petrified into being defensive, and too little is equally disastrous. When you get it right, however, you can make a real difference by ensuring that everyone around the table is motivated and challenged to be as brilliant as they can be.
- Empathy. Because of my time as a CEO, I can empathise and understand the stress and sheer relentlessness of the role. Having a certain empathy is essential for a board member, and this is doubly true for chairs. The best chairs play a major role in creating a positive environment on the board by providing support, whilst also challenging and being totally clear on strategy, priorities, and expected performance standards.
- No ego. There are two things you can never really say as a non-executive director. The first is, “That was my idea.” It may well have been your idea, but there’s no point saying it and claiming it as your success — it's much better that others feel ownership. The other is, “I told you so.” In cases where your advice wasn’t heeded, approach it as a learning experience and consider why people didn’t listen. Work out what you need to do to be heard next time: do you need better data? Or should you spend more time engaging with other board members and ensure that you are properly explaining your point of view?
“When you sit on a board, your role lies somewhere between policing and being a therapist.”
Are there any female leaders in particular who have inspired you? Why?
My original boss, Marilyn Baxter, who I succeeded as strategy director at Saatchi & Saatchi. She was wonderfully supportive and managed to combine a great intellect alongside a clear sense of fairness and strength, which was always imbued with her sense of humour. She epitomised good leadership, in my view, and served as a fantastic role model in the way I led the team and give feedback.
If you could make a single change to make boards more effective, what would it be?
I would inject more humanity into boards to make them more effective. It’s rather obvious, but it’s worth remembering that boards are at the end of the day just a collection of human beings with human motivations.
I’ve done a lot of work on my own purpose and motivations and what my unique contribution to the world might be. My goal is to make business more human. The world needs to change to be better, and businesses are a big part of the world, so businesses need to be better.
How can boards make better use of information to arrive at more informed decisions?
Firstly, you need a clear and vivid dashboard that shows at a glance everything that the business needs to work on to succeed. This needs both metrics on current business and indicators that look towards the future. You need to balance financial and non-financial; you should have metrics for your customers and others (even qualitative) on employee sentiment and motivation. When you get this scorecard right, it gives you a heatmap sense of the overall organisation, whilst also allowing you to take a deeper dive into areas that need more focus.
And feeding into that, I think that every organisation needs a great Chief Strategy Officer to keep an eye on the bigger picture and anticipate challenges that could derail progress. And I’m not just saying that because I come from a strategy background! It’s a hugely important role that can be very easy to underestimate or underplay. The organisations that have responded best to the range of crises and opportunities we’ve all faced and that have an eye on the horizon are also those that have fantastic strategy people.
“The organisations that have responded best to the range of crises and opportunities we’ve all faced and that have an eye on the horizon are also those that have fantastic strategy people.”
What role do nominations committee chairs play in choosing leaders whose values match those needed to ensure that business is a force for good?
I think that chairs of nominations committees need to be clear on the organisation’s purpose and values and be able to coherently articulate what it is that makes the business special and enables it to succeed. After all, if they can’t do that, then how can they be expected to appropriately select leaders who embody those values and principles?
I would also add that nomination committee chairs should ensure there is a robust succession plan, ideally with a decent pipeline of future leaders; they should almost be acting as a kind of air traffic control for nurturing and developing these people so that they can reach their potential.
“They should almost be acting as a kind of air traffic control for nurturing and developing these people so that they can reach their potential.”