Leading the Change: Sir Brendan Barber

Chair of the board

4 min read

Sir Brendan Barber is deputy chair of the Financial Services Culture Board. He previously served as general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, and as chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

Here, Sir Brendan reflects on chairing a Think Tank roundtable and lays down a challenge to his peers.

My challenge to business leaders

If I were to lay down a challenge to my fellow leaders around creating a fairer future, I would ask them to start by recognising the continued existence of “burning injustices” (as they were labelled by the former Prime Minister Theresa May back in 2016). There are still far too many people — particularly young people — trapped in exploitative casualised employment, with insecure jobs and poor conditions.

I would ask them to do something about those injustices, by committing to work policies that deliver greater fairness — but also by taking a more imaginative approach to board composition, recruitment, and functioning. That means ripping up the old rule book and creating a new one: one that gives greater prominence to the interests of all key stakeholders, and places greater value on everyone’s experience regardless of their age, ethnicity, gender, or social background. This is the only way we can create fairer organisations and governance structures.

The old rule book is based on taking the “safe” option — looking for candidates who can slot neatly into the existing machinery. But this can lead to a lack of a challenge, boardroom groupthink and stagnation. In the face of so many serious and unfamiliar issues demanding attention — from climate change, to Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement — the past is an increasingly unreliable guide to the future. The Covid crisis has transformed the working patterns and expectations of millions of people. To survive and prosper, businesses need innovation and creative ideas. A board stuffed with “people like us”, insulated from the life experience of those outside the boardroom, may lack the vision to come up with bold new solutions.

“The past is an increasingly unreliable guide to the future.”

The new rule book is based on ruffling feathers — putting fresh thinkers with different perspectives alongside those who have put the years in, and opening up the boardroom to genuine dialogue with the workforce and key stakeholders in new ways. This will require recruiters and nomination committees to make sure the door to the boardroom is open to a wider range of experience. Real diversity — and greater fairness — can only be achieved by taking a broader view and fishing in a deeper, less conventional pool.

One of the most effective boards I have been involved in is also one of the most unconventional — the Financial Services Culture Board (FSCB), where I am deputy chair. Founded in 2015 as the Banking Standards Board in the wake of a Parliamentary Commission, the FSCB’s remit is to help organisations in the financial sector to actively address issues of behaviour and competence, and build fairer and more inclusive cultures. Alongside our practitioner members, who are the industry voices you might expect to find, the FSCB also has a range of non-practitioner members recruited from outside the sector. These include: David Urqhart, the Bishop of Birmingham; Gillian Guy, the former head of the Citizens Advice Bureau; the economist Paul Johnson, head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies; Alan Wilson, a former Vice Chancellor who also ran the Turing Institute; Chris Grant, with huge experience in the world of sport; and Loretta Minghella, ex-chief executive of Christian Aid and now master of Clare College, Cambridge.

“Real diversity — and greater fairness — can only be achieved by taking a broader view and fishing in a deeper, less conventional pool.”

Bringing such a diverse and insightful group together has been immensely valuable. Thanks to their enormous breadth of experience, the non-practitioners provide a strong challenge — for example, around key issues to do with purpose, or how staff in the organisations we work with feel about the extent to which bad behaviour is tolerated. Practitioner members have said that the FSCB meetings are the most stimulating of all those they attend, because such very different types of conversation are had.

I believe many other organisations could benefit from trying a similar approach; getting a wider range of voices heard in the boardroom. While there is no doubt that experience is very valuable, it comes in all shapes and sizes. If we are going to build a fairer future, we need to get much better at understanding — and harnessing — that diversity of experience.

What we learnt by adding a seat to the table

Every Board Intelligence Think Tank roundtable features an unexpected guest, invited to bring a different viewpoint to the conversation. On this occasion, we heard from Lizzie Beale, a youth ambassador.


The contribution from Lizzie Beale was powerful, precisely because it brought to life the benefit of including a wider range of voices in boardroom debate. The press of day-to-day business makes it difficult for directors to stand back and take a longer view, with the result that decisions are often seen through a very narrow commercial lens. Lizzie asked us to think about whether we will be proud of the decisions we take today in 20 years’ time — that is a very good question, and one that I’ll be asking more often in board meetings as a result.


Click here to read the full report on our roundtable findings.

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