Sir John Manzoni: “For the public sector to flourish it must be protected from overcontrol and underdelegation.”

Chair of the board

4 min read

Sir John Manzoni is chair of the board at Atomic Weapons Establishment and SSE. He’s also a non-executive director at Diageo and KBR, and previously worked as chief executive of the Civil Service and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary. Here, he talks about humanising board meetings, avoiding “executive capture”, and what public and private sector boards can learn from each other.

In your view, what’s key to board effectiveness?

Often, the difference between an effective board and an ineffective one comes down to style. I’m a believer in “kitchen table”-style meetings, but that comes down to the chair’s role in setting the tone and style of the board.

Board meetings and members can tend to be a bit “grand” in their manner, despite the fact you don’t need to be grand to be a good board member; it’s about inner confidence, not outer confidence. So I do what I can to humanize the meetings and try to prevent grandstanding — I swear quite freely! And that can take the edge off a formal tone and create an air of openness.

As chair, you should also build relationships with board members outside the boardroom. People who know each other better make a more cohesive board than those who only interact during meetings.

What role does information and insight have on board effectiveness?

It’s crucial to get the information right. Where I’ve seen it go wrong is where it feels like death by PowerPoint — or what I like to call “executive capture”. There isn’t time to write a short paper so the packs are full of data or an overabundance of irrelevant information.

It’s incredibly frustrating as a board member when you receive 1,200 pages to read over the weekend and, as a result, you can’t see the wood for the trees. By the time you’ve got through all of that, you realise you’re missing the big picture. Instead, you’re looking at confusing performance information that doesn’t tell you much and certainly doesn’t help the board generate insight on how to improve performance. It’s the chair’s job to call that out and work with the executive to change.

That can be more of an issue in US contexts, where boards are generally a bit more remote from running the company and there isn’t as much room for challenge. It’s not all that uncommon for boards to be somewhat “in hock” to a strong chief executive, and that’s something to watch out for.

How do you ensure board meetings and agendas cover the right topics?

A thoughtful agenda is critical to a great meeting, and the chair has to be proactive, thoughtful, and engaged in setting the agenda, otherwise it can become rote. It’s not as simple as just getting something on the agenda, though; you need to be specific, relevant to the firm, and focus on how it connects to strategy.

“To get real value you have to frame the agenda, the papers and the board session around the important questions on your mind.”

Take a topic like AI, or geopolitics, or supply chain risk. You can simply add it to the agenda and have the executives respond by popping up with all the cool things they’re doing with it, or lots of information and initiatives. But to get real value you have to frame the agenda, the papers and the board session around the important questions on your mind. As a board, you should be asking “What is our strategy?” and help shape that, whatever the topic might be.

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What has your career taught you about the differences between the boards of private companies and arms-length bodies?

Those who work in the public sector tend to be incredibly clever but can lack experience, whereas those in the private sector tend to use judgement born from experience.

The public sector uses extraordinarily detailed analysis; this lends itself to well-written policy documents and builds on the artful writing skills of public servants. In many ways, the private sector has a lot to learn from the public sector and how they develop evidence-based policy.

But this is a very different way of working and that comes through in the way the boards operate and the information they have to make decisions. When you look at the inherent complexities of both sectors, you soon see that running a business is pretty straightforward compared to managing a public sector organisation.

“For the public sector to flourish it must be protected from overcontrol and underdelegation.”

In the public sector, the ultimate arbiter is the government of the day, and public perception is key. As a board member of an Arms Length Body in the public sector, one of the most important things you can do is to protect that organization from the changes in government, and help them to build long-standing operating capabilities in the system. If you don’t, if the board hasn’t protected the entity from government changes and undue influence, the operating capability can be substantially degraded over time.

The Civil Service also struggles with delegation. Delegation flows upwards to a court-like forum to deliver, and we all know that courts don’t deliver. For the public sector to flourish it must be protected from overcontrol and underdelegation.

What book is on your bedside table?

I hate this question because I manage to read about one page a night before I fall asleep. And then I re-read it the next day, so it takes me about a year and a half to read one book!

What’s your golden rule?

Listen first before you jump in with your own thoughts.

We all need a conscious reminder to do this. It’s all too easy to dive right in without hearing what others around the table have to say. It especially matters when you’re the chair; if you share your thoughts immediately you sometimes find people change their responses in line with what you’ve said, or their thoughts and concerns end up going unheard. That’s the polar opposite of how you want the board to operate.

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