Sir Michael Rake is the chair at Great Ormond Street Hospital. His life’s work includes serving as a president of the CBI, the chair at EasyJet, BT, WorldPay and KPMG, Deputy Chair of Barclays, Director of S&P Global, as well as an agenda contributor at the World Economic Forum. In this interview, Mike shares his thoughts on remote meetings, weathering boardroom storms, and the secret to being a good chair…
If you could give one piece of advice to every board, what would it be?
You have to be violently calm during a crisis. As a board member, you have a duty of collegiality not to panic. I was on the board of Barclays in 2008 during the economic crisis, and everyone remained calm, composed and engaged with governance and considered actions, despite the surrounding chaos.
Day-to-day, you shouldn’t be afraid to escalate issues that could be damaging from a reputational point of view. When faced with an existential reputational threat; don’t try to contain this yourself. You have to be honest about your board’s capabilities in handling a problem, and unafraid of taking external advice where appropriate.
“As a board member, you have a duty of collegiality not to panic.”
What do you think is key to being a strong chair?
Any good chair will have a desire to not only converse effectively but also engage the board and in a broader way, to deliver value. A good sense of humour is not to be underestimated, and matters! Chairs need to have a modus operandi that’s transparent, inclusive and facilitates a balanced conversation. They should ensure there’s space for board members to challenge management, without being too destructive. And they need to take control when faced with a dogmatic leader who might block anyone who challenges them. My advice would be for chairs to have a session with just the board before the meeting, using this as an opportunity to flag management concerns and ensure that they’re dealt with constructively during the meeting. This group can then reconvene after the meeting to check that everyone is happy with the outcome.
“Chairs need to have a modus operandi that’s transparent, inclusive and facilitates a balanced conversation.”
What role do you think board packs play in having good meetings?
Too much paper in a board pack is just as dangerous as none. You must be crystal clear on what the remit of the paper is, and what can go in the appendices. By design or not, an overload of information can send the board down a rabbit hole. Make sure the papers stay with the big issues and stand back from them objectively, rather than getting too lost in detail.
“By design or not, an overload of information can send the board down a rabbit hole.”
How impactful do you think remote board meetings are?
There’s a limit to the efficacy of remote board meetings. There are obviously upsides — for instance when you need to get together at short notice or accommodate people who can’t make the physical meetings. But limiting ourselves to a fully remote meeting model will cause latent issues for most boards. Firstly, there’s the relationship-building aspect. You can read body language better when in person, there’s more opportunity for informal chat and humour, and you can embed social activities.
Then there’s the personal development aspect. You get a better sense of who’s in charge, what the power dynamics are, and whom you can learn from when you’re in the actual room. And you learn better by osmosis through your peers when you’re physically around them.
And then there’s engagement during the meeting, and the perils of being sat in front of a screen for hours on end. The exhaustion factor is palpable in a virtual board meeting.
I personally believe a hybrid calendar model is the answer.
What book do you have on your bedside table?
Spike: The Virus vs. The People, by Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja. It’s about the pandemic, and how scientists and governments around the world reacted to the unprecedented unfolding of a medical emergency.
What’s your golden rule?
Have fun! Life is too short. Nowadays I only work with people I like and who have a sense of humour.