Zena Couppey: “Robust governance takes discipline”


4 min read

Zena Couppey is CEO at Altum Group, a leading international provider of fund, corporate, and family office solutions. She has also been an independent director and company secretary, and was instrumental in the growth of Sanne, where she held a number of senior roles in Europe and the Middle East. Here, she shares her perspective on the link between good governance and good business, walking the talk as a CEO, and the different perspectives of executive and non-executive directors.

Altum’s clients value that you think differently. What inspires your team to go further for your clients?

To be a great leader you can’t just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. I join in with our running club and go for drinks with the team as often as I can because it’s really important to be relatable. And you’ve got to roll your sleeves up – never ask someone to do something you wouldn't do yourself. You also need a mission statement that people can believe in, an environment where they align with the culture and feel that their voice is heard. More than anything, though, it’s imperative to make work as fun as you can so that people actually want to come to work.

With this in mind, we do reverse mentoring, where more junior employees also mentor their more senior colleagues. And we’re about to launch a shared ownership scheme for the whole firm to give employees that voice and a stake in the business. It’s a fairly unique model, and something that I’m incredibly proud to put into practice.

Ultimately, we want people to feel accountable but not micromanaged. We all remember the environment where you had to make excuses if you left at five o’clock, even though you’d been there for twelve hours already. That’s not productive, and it isn’t going to engage people today, post-COVID, where work-life balance is quite rightly a much higher priority. I’ve noticed recently that when we’re interviewing graduates it often feels like I’m the one being interviewed with questions around ESG, culture, and ethical red lines, corporate governance is very important to me as CEO. To attract the best talent you have got to be a business where people want to work.

“Ultimately, we want people to feel accountable but not micromanaged.”

You offer company secretarial services and provide directors to clients’ boards; what are you doing to help your clients think differently about how their boards operate?

Corporate governance is important to me - we won't work with clients that don't take corporate governance as seriously as we think they should. All our clients must have at least quarterly properly documented, full board meetings; notices, agendas, and board packs go out a full seven days before any meeting; minutes get turned around within seven days after the meeting, and so on. We are looking for robust governance delivered in a timely manner – and that takes discipline. I've been doing this for 24 years – I grew up writing minutes and agendas – and I tend to be something of a perfectionist around it as I really care about it.

What does a great board meeting feel like as a CEO? What value does it bring?

At Altum, board meetings feel more like strategy sessions – we don't spend a lot of time looking back. The board also aren’t obsessed with the numbers, because they understand it's a growth journey. We welcome challenges from the board, and I love it when they make me go away and think. Enabling that environment of constructive debate is the role of a really good non-executive exec chair.

“At Altum, board meetings feel more like strategy sessions – we don't spend a lot of time looking back.”

How does your experience as an independent director influence how you approach board meetings?

One of the things being an independent director taught me was to be more analytical, and to appreciate the difference in perspective between executive and independent directors, with the latter not being into the detail as much. Even with the best will in the world, the board pack is unlikely to show in detail how the firm is being run on a day-to-day basis, so you need to be ready to identify areas where you’d like to know more.

From my experience as an executive, I knew what I had put in my board pack and the reception it got, which gave me the foresight as a non-executive director to be able to challenge and critique board packs a lot better. I also think that when you return to the other side you realise where you can't just give a stat or a graph but need to give a bit more flavour. It helped me to identify where I actually need to explain stuff and bring it to life a bit more, and I think that was my best learning from that.

“When you return to the other side you realise where you can't just give a stat or a graph but need to give a bit more flavour.”

I’m also thrilled that this year we are trialling a board apprentice scheme, where we select members of staff to observe meetings for six months. They are going to give us feedback after every meeting on how the board performed, and they are there to act as representatives for the employees. It will make sure that we are listening to what staff are saying, and they will report into the chair during the scheme. At Altum, we really believe in being completely transparent, and with this scheme there’s nowhere to hide – I'm excited to see what we learn from it.

What book is on your bedside table?

I’ve recently started reading The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Bob Iger, which I’m really enjoying so far. I also recently read Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike which was great. I love travelling for work because it means I get more time to read and listen to podcasts – something I enjoy, but which is hard to find a lot of time for when you have a full-on job and two small children at home!

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