Tom Ilube CBE is the CEO of Crossword Cybersecurity, a NED for WPP — the world’s largest advertising company — and a former NED for the BBC. In his education work, Tom is also chair of the African Science Academy — the continent’s first all-girls science and maths school — as well as an advisory fellow of St Anne’s College, University of Oxford.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
For me, the main thing is a lot of listening; when people aren’t trying to prove points or push others into positions, but are sharing insights and responding with suggestions that move things forward.
For that to happen, alignment is key. Boards often don’t do enough to create shared context, not exploring the questions of “What are we doing — and why?” and that can create misunderstandings, especially between the executives and the non-executives. But once it’s clear that we’re all trying to climb the same mountain, we get much more open to suggestions — because we know that everyone else in the room understands what we’re trying to do.
What advice would you give a director from a minority group joining a board?
I’ve always been the only black person on the boards I’ve sat on, which means I have to make unseen decisions and calculations that other board members probably won’t be aware of. And I imagine the same goes for women joining all-male boards.
At some point, issues related to racial diversity will come up. All heads will turn in my direction to see what I’m going to say. The question is: Do I speak up? If you do, then you’re tagged as owning that issue — and your voice on other issues will be dialled down, because, “You’re the black guy handling racial stuff, so why are you discussing marketing?” So, depending on the organisation, I often won’t tackle diversity matters in the first three or four meetings, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“At some point, issues related to racial diversity will come up. The question is: Do I speak up? If you do, then you’re tagged as owning that issue — and your voice on other issues will be dialled down.”
Some chairs will know that this is going through your mind and will help you manage that. But others might not, so it’s a good thing to have that discussion with them beforehand and make sure they’re aware of what you’re doing.
What are the main pitfalls boards fall for when addressing diversity?
Firstly, many boards see diversity as an issue to deal with before they can get on with “real” business. But it’s not a one-and-done thing. Nobody thinks, “We need to get finance done and out of the way and then get back to business” — it’s an ongoing issue that you have to engage with to be successful. Diversity and inclusion are exactly the same things: They’re not issues to tackle and forget, they’re tools to hone continuously so that you can win.
“Diversity and inclusion aren’t issues to tackle and forget, they’re tools to hone continuously so that you can win.”
Secondly, minority board members shouldn’t be put in a situation where they have to keep raising the same diversity-related issues. When I arrived on the BBC board, papers would look at the impact of decisions on the audience, and I would regularly have to ask about the impact on ethnic minority audiences. My question would be answered in the meeting, but it took me asking multiple times to see it reflected in the board papers without me asking. And if you are from a minority group, the last thing you need is to be pigeonholed as going on about race all the time.
And thirdly, a phrase you often hear on boards is, “What we really need is diversity of thought.” It might be well-meaning, but, if you come from a minority community, what you sometimes hear is, “We don’t need black people, we just need people who can think like black people.”
If you were to build a board from scratch, how would you structure it?
It would have different age dynamics to what I usually see — because boards are often a reward for longevity, and we need to think harder about that. Of course, younger people don’t have the same amount of experience, so you need to have honest conversations about what you expect from them — but it’s a two-way street, and it falls on the chair to foster an environment where their voices have value and are heard.
“Boards are often a reward for longevity, and we need to think harder about that.”
I would also definitely work harder on gender diversity. These days, if your board isn’t 50/50 gender-wise, you’re most likely biased in some way.
And finally, I’d look for ethnic diversity that reflects the UK’s increasingly diverse population. The dynamics in the boardroom are different with one non-white person in the room compared to when you have two or more non-white people.
Is it harder to foster good board dynamics remotely?
We’ve been going through a reinvention of how boards function, and that inevitably comes with teething troubles. When experiencing change, all groups go through the stages of “form, storm, and perform”: You’ll form a team, it will then start storming as people learn to work with each other, and, once you’ve gotten through that, it will start to perform. When chairs recognise this and are open about the fact that their board is on a journey, then you can make remote meetings work.
Here, the “storm” element is about allowing your remote board to have a conversation regarding its dynamics. Set aside some time at the end of the meeting, and just raise whatever it is that you’ve noticed. For example, is there someone who tends to dominate the conversation in an online setting? If so, it’s much better to deal with it right then, even though it can feel uncomfortable, rather than let it fester.
“We can be too polite in British boards and just hope things will improve, but they won’t by themselves.”
Finally, there’s a quite simple thing: Board members need good lighting and good sound to be seen and heard. We can be too polite in British boards and just hope things will improve, but they won’t by themselves, so just tell those directors who need it to get a proper webcam and headset!
What book is on your bedside table?
Currently, a book on CRISPR — a genetic engineering technique. The impact of having the ability to edit genes in humans will be profound, and the ethical challenges that’ll arise from it will be fascinating.
As a wider trend, I suspect that ethics will become a major agenda item for boards. Issues like AI and gene editing have been interesting ethical discussions so far — now, they’re becoming reality.
What is your Golden Rule?
“Tell your story.”
“If you don’t tell your stories, then someone else will tell them for you.”
There’s an African proverb that says, “Until lions have their own storytellers, tales of a hunt will always favour the hunter.” If you don’t tell your stories, then someone else will tell them for you.