Vindi Banga is the chair of UK Government Investments and Marie Curie, as well as a non-executive at GlaxoSmithKline and The Economist Group. Prior to this, Vinda sat on the board of the Confederation of British Industry, Thomson Reuters, Marks & Spencer, the Mauser Group, and spent 33 years at Unilever where he was a member of the Executive Board.
What are the hallmarks of a great board meeting?
A great meeting does four things.
First, it spends the bulk of the discussion time on the maximisation of opportunity, rather than on the minimisation of risk. Risk is the “comfortable topic” that boards naturally default to, and having it on the agenda is obviously necessary, but it’s not what drives a business forward.
Second, it balances long and short-term. The urgent will always creep onto the agenda, and it shouldn’t be allowed to crowd out the important. As a rule of thumb, at least half of a meeting’s time should be spent on long-term issues.
Third, it’s well-managed. Yes, you need board material to stimulate the conversation, but it’s a colossal waste to use your meeting to simply share information. So, demand papers that are concise and available before the meeting — because there’s no point putting information together if you don’t give board members time to read, digest, and probe it. Keep presentations snappy. And give the floor to the discussion.
And fourth, it ends when it’s supposed to. Respecting people’s time is not just the civil thing to do, it’s also your job as the chair.
How do you devise an agenda focused on maximising opportunities?
Start by always covering talent. People are what make or break your organisation, and they should be discussed every time you meet, not once a year — and even more so now that remote working is making directors lose the “smell of the place.”
It’s not just about succession planning, either. It’s about everyone in the organisation, and the tough questions you should be asking about them: “What’s our culture? How do people work together? What’s our level of diversity, and how does it impact creativity? Is our remuneration model competitive? How engaged are our people? What’s our company’s purpose, and do people find it motivating and want to join us? And why are people leaving us, and does it show a disconnect between our experience of the organisation and theirs?”
“People are what make or break your organisation, and they should be discussed every time you meet, not once a year.”
Then, make strategy — that is, your strategic initiatives and their execution — a living thing that is constantly reviewed. Boards love coming up with plans at “away days” that they imagine can then just become management’s roadmap for the next 12 months. But the reality is that what happens in your market should influence your strategy which in turn will influence what happens in your market — it’s all a big feedback loop, and it should be discussed at every meeting.
Finally, think outside the company. We live in a fast-moving world, especially when it comes to technology, and it’s easy to get left behind if you don’t look at others just as much as at yourself — so, review the market, your competitive positioning, or the benchmarks. And ask your directors to help you: they’re working outside of your organisation most of the time, and a good agenda should enable them to bring back their experiences, tell you what they’re seeing or hearing elsewhere, and connect the dots between their different boards.
“We live in a fast-moving world, and it’s easy to get left behind if you don’t look at others just as much as at yourself.”
Where does ESG fit in, and how do you bring it into the board conversation?
It should already be on the agenda, because what’s called “ESG” can simply be called “good business”. It’s what the companies that stand the test of time have always done — look at Unilever, which was already taking stakeholders into consideration under Lord Leverhulme.
It’s important to believe that ESG creates real value, and that implies understanding how it does so. Key aspects are:
- E is about doing more with less — this will save cost and aid sustainable business.
- S is about harnessing the creativity from a diverse team; also, an engaged workforce adds value.
- G: good governance is about values — and surely creates value.
What’s your advice to directors when choosing whether to join a board or not?
Only agree to sit on boards where you genuinely feel that you’ll be able to both contribute and learn. Obviously, the opportunities you’re given will determine how that plays out for you, but in my case, there have been quite a few boards throughout the years that I decided not to join because I felt that at least one of these two criteria wasn’t there.
“Only agree to sit on boards where you genuinely feel that you’ll be able to both contribute and learn.”
Making that judgement call means taking an honest look at oneself and asking simple but potentially uncomfortable questions: “What will I and my experience bring to that particular board? What can I take in from it? Do I believe in what this company stands for and is trying to achieve? And is that organisation filling me with enough passion and curiosity for both these things to happen?”
What book is on your bedside table?
Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, where he explores how Covid hasn’t so much changed history as brought it forward. This isn’t a particularly novel idea, but the way he looks at it and articulates his thoughts makes you stop and think.
What is your Golden Rule?
Listen before forming an opinion — it’s that simple.
This interview was conducted by Niamh Corbett and Maximilien van Gaver.