Tom Colraine is chair of Marsh UK & Ireland. He was previously chair of Hastings Group Holdings, the Compre Group, the Audit & Risk Committee of Schroders’ Wealth Management Division, as well as chief financial officer of AIG Europe and Willis Group.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
A great board meeting is one where you talk about the real issues that are affecting your company or its people — especially if they’re difficult ones.
For these issues to surface, you need an environment where everyone is comfortable speaking up, and where you can voice different opinions without falling out. There’s nothing wrong with heated arguments, but everyone must be receptive to what’s being said.
“Humour can be a powerful tool for a chair.”
And importantly, you should have some fun! It’s a strong belief of mine that directors can — and should — enjoy the many hours they spend together around the boardroom table. Humour isn’t always easy to bring into online meetings — thanks to their bad, delayed audio — but it’s a great icebreaker and bond-former, and it can be a powerful tool for a chair.
Is it harder to foster good board dynamics remotely?
The most important preparation you can do ahead of a meeting is to make sure that those at board level know each other well. Everybody is more relaxed that way, and that’s key to perceiving other people’s views and opinions as helpful rather than adversarial.
“The most important preparation you can do ahead of a meeting is to make sure that those at board level know each other well.”
Building that comradeship through screens can be tough. For the chair, it makes it even more crucial to catch up with board members outside of the board meetings, so that you can develop that relationship, make sure nothing is left unsaid, and check that you’ve truly understood them. When they said “Right, let’s do X,” did it mean “I’m not a fan of X but I’m okay with it,” or “X is non-debatable and I’m willing to die on that hill”? Things that may sound obvious in person aren’t always that clear when you’re not facing one another.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt during the Covid-19 crisis?
There are a few; the most evident ones being how much we can do remotely and how quickly we can adopt new modes of operation. In my businesses, we had over 3,000 people newly equipped to work from home within two weeks — which goes to show how much an organisation can do when everyone is focused on the same thing.
“It’s a complex world, and with an ever-increasing number of issues, the time you can spend on each one is trivial at best.”
More generally, it taught us how we can make decisions faster — and the value of doing so. It’s a complex world, and with an ever-increasing number of issues, the time you can spend on each one is trivial at best. So, do we really need pilot schemes and year-long rollouts for every little thing?
From pandemics to climate change, how can boards best prepare for low-frequency high-severity risks?
The people at Marsh run a global risk survey, in conjunction with Zurich, for the World Economic Forum every year, where they ask CEOs to rank their “Top 5 Global Risks in Terms of Impact.” “Pandemic” was in the Top 5 in the surveys reported in 2007 and 2008, and hasn’t appeared in the Top 5 since. This should remind us that the chances of these rare events (or black swans) don’t disappear, they just jostle for attention in our minds and agendas.
“The chances of black swans don’t disappear, they just jostle for attention in our minds and agendas.”
Most companies now have a chief risk officer who can keep an eye on black swans and ensure we don’t forget about them. But boards haven’t always given them the mandate to make sure the company is equipped to respond to these threats, or allocated enough time to discuss “What will we do if…?” I trust that no directors will dismiss such conversations again by saying, “That’ll never happen.”
You can’t put every single potential risk on the agenda, of course, because the list would be endless. But if someone can come up with a plausible scenario and everybody in the boardroom thinks, “We wouldn’t be ready for that”, then you’ve got a problem — and it’s the chair’s job to set aside some time to discuss it.
Are boards out of touch with society? If so, how can they re-engage?
There was already a growing consensus that boards must do a whole lot more than just look after their shareholders — the concept of being responsible to stakeholders is nothing new. But the pandemic has expanded our definition of who these stakeholders are, by showing us how much we’re interconnected, and how much we depend on others. Before Covid, if you had made a list of who we thought of as “important” in a society, you’ll likely have written “doctors” or “teachers” but probably not “truck drivers delivering groceries to the shop.”
“That increased sense of connection will change expectations around the role of business in society.”
That increased sense of connection will, I think, change expectations around the role of business in society, and around the amount of tax we’ll all need to pay to support well-functioning public services. There’s still a feeling amongst politicians that they’ll become unelectable if they raise taxes — but boards should be thinking hard about these questions, because change will come eventually.
What book is on your bedside table?
How To Make The World Add Up, by Tim Harford.
He’s an economist who takes a sceptical look at statistics and how they’re presented in deceptive ways. I consider myself pretty sceptical in general, but he’s made my understanding of what to look for that much more robust.
What is your Golden Rule?
It’s all about people and attitude — much more than skill.
Pick people with a great attitude, and they’ll do your work for you. But pick people with a bad one, and no matter how brilliant they are you’ll spend all your time covering for them.