Susanne Chishti: “It felt like the world was being changed right in front of us.”


4 min read

Susanne Chishti is founder and CEO at FINTECH Circle, and non-executive director at CMC Markets PLC and Crown Agents Bank. Here, she shares what makes the best boards and how even the CEO needs to be told they’re doing a great job.

Throughout your career, you’ve held various roles as a non-executive director and CEO, and have become a published author. Looking back, are there any defining moments that stand out to you?

  1. Early 1990s, I was studying at the University of California in Berkeley when the internet was being invented and Netscape had its IPO. I saw all the start-up founders and venture capitalists coming together to launch great technology companies and scale them up. I’ll never forget the atmosphere, it was so vibrant and exciting — it felt like the world was being changed right in front of us. Over 20 years later, I was looking at the FinTech sector growing, and I got that same feeling about the future of finance.
  2. Learning that it’s one thing to spot opportunities, and another thing entirely to capitalise on them and build a business. It’s a massive decision to start your own company, and one that requires a lot of self-reflection as to why you are doing it. For me, I did it because I saw the opportunity that was there in FinTech and have never looked back.

“I’ll never forget the atmosphere, it was so vibrant and exciting — it felt like the world was being changed right in front of us.”

You’re clearly passionate about the role FinTech can play in contributing to the societal safety net. Can you share some examples?

In the UK, 80% of people have less than £500 in savings, and four million are without a bank account. Historically, access to financial advice and services has been restricted to those who could afford them — for example, you need £10m+ in liquid assets to get a private banker. FinTech has the power to change this by using apps to devise an asset allocation model for retail customers on-demand which is easily accessible.

Another area of breakthrough is in insurance. Today there are insurance companies which pay out on the day your house gets flooded because they have data on the water levels in your area. There are even some who are paying to move your furniture upstairs when there’s an alert that there will be a flood. These FinTech advances have an enormous potential to transform peoples’ finances and, therefore, their lives. FINTECH Circle has even produced a film on that topic called “Fintech for Good”.

Are there any golden rules that you follow in the boardroom as a non-executive?

  1. Prioritising. I’m here to help the company focus on the areas that are strategically important rather than on those that are declining. And to share my experience from other mistakes I have witnessed in our industry, so they don’t make them.
  2. Praising. The higher up you get, the less praise you receive. If you’re the CEO of a large bank or a FTSE 100, at the end of the day you’re still a human being who needs to get external validation, too, that they’re doing a good job. Boards don’t really do that enough, and certainly not as quickly as when things go wrong.
  3. Diplomacy. Not everything happens in the boardroom, there are conversations outside the boardroom that are vital where we can add value to support executive teams. For non-executives, these offer an opportunity to engage deeper and get to know the day-to-day challenges and opportunities and better understand important corporate topics and the fact that, ultimately, everyone is on the same side.

What changes can we make to boards to make them more effective?

I’d make sure that boards are the right size. When you’ve got a board that’s too large (over 12 people), then voices don’t get heard and the board becomes an organism in itself; yet if your board is too small then you won’t be getting any of the benefits that come with hearing diverse opinions.

Board papers should be concise with powerful executive summaries. I also value the view from the top: what the CEO is worrying about, excited about, and the main things the management team are working on now.

“Board papers should be concise with powerful executive summaries.”

Ineffective boards are those where the executives prepare slide decks and just go through it during the meeting followed by a few minutes of discussion before the board approves whatever is on the agenda. When there’s that sense that the board cannot effectively leverage the expertise brought by non-executives to arrive at more strategic options and ultimately better decisions for the company. The chair of course plays a key role in preventing this from happening by encouraging people to speak up and share their views, thereby contributing to a constructive dialogue.

Is there a female leader you’ve worked with/for who has inspired you, and if so, why?

I’ve been surrounded by wonderful women since childhood — including my mother, grandmother and many fantastic female bosses. I believe in “sisterhood” and that women can support each other even more. We also must thank all the women who came before us and broke the proverbial glass ceiling. The first woman on a board, for example, who has paved the way for us to be where we are. My advice for women today is to ask for more, aim higher, and build your own resilience and mindset for success.

What do you think of the role played by nominations committee chairs in the context of choosing leaders whose values match those needed to ensure business is a force for good?

They are the gatekeeper to the board. Any executive positions go through the nominations committee — as a committee, we debate the value of each candidate. The NomCo Chair has a powerful influence to remove people from the list or can insist people are kept on. And if there would be a disagreement then the NomCo chair has a casting vote.

As leaders we need to proactively share the values we are looking for in senior roles and assess how new candidates fit into our culture and the one we want to build.

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