Leading the Change: Stephen Welton


4 min read

Stephen Welton was founder CEO of BGF and is now its executive chair. A barrister by profession who moved into banking and finance, he’s served as an independent director on a range of companies worldwide and is currently a non-executive on the board of FTSE 100 company Intermediate Capital Group.

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

My challenge to business leaders

When I was asked to chair a discussion for the Board Intelligence Think Tank about the role of business in creating a fairer world in summer 2021, I took pause to reflect on the past 18 months. Things we would have hitherto thought impossible have been shown to be, in fact, possible. Who would have thought that you could develop and deploy a vaccine against a new virus within a year? Or that we could rapidly adopt new forms of working focused on flexibility, and on outputs over inputs? This really is form over substance. What this shows is that we have the mental capacity and agility, as well as the financial ability, to tackle the biggest problems society faces.

This period has also demonstrated, however, that we tend to only solve problems when they become overwhelming. When I think about climate change, for example, it concerns me that while there are no insurmountable technical obstacles to stop us transforming to a green economy and society, political impediments remain. If we could harness a sense of urgency, alongside the knowledge that everything is possible when we put our collective minds to it, just think of the positive change we could achieve.

“We have the mental capacity and agility, as well as the financial ability, to tackle the biggest problems society faces.”

Therefore, my challenge to my fellow business leaders is: become more ambitious and confident in shaping a long-term vision for your business, society and how they interact — rather than waiting for an overwhelming crisis before taking action. Let us be empowered rather than engulfed.

How can we begin to do this? Currently, plenty of organisations are flying blind in the face of long-term ESG challenges simply because we don’t know how to measure damages or advances in these areas. The lack of consensus around ESG metrics is the key barrier to taking proactive action towards a fairer future.

I suggest we approach ESG measurement in two ways. The first you can do now, within your own organisation. The second will require collaboration across organisations and sectors.

  1. Identify what ESG means for your business specifically. For example, at BGF, we cover the E, S, and G in these ways:

    • E: The green economy is not just a key investment opportunity — rather, it is necessary to invest here if we’re going to prevent total climate breakdown. We’re always looking for green technologies and organisations to invest in.
    • S: We have close physical links to communities across the UK through our offices and the investments we make. Our investments create employment and stimulate economic growth within local communities. This is the backbone of our country.
    • G: Instituting good governance practices in the small companies we invest in helps them to not only survive, but to thrive. Often, they won’t have experience with corporate governance, so we’ll introduce additional directors on to their boards to support this development. This is not about bureaucracy, rather empowerment through effective mentoring and collaboration.
  2. We need an overall drive for shared ESG metrics too, which is a tricky question fuelling an ongoing debate. For now, I’d suggest two practical and powerful measurements that are familiar, easy to standardise, and apply to every organisation. Between them, they cover both an outward-facing and inward-facing look at your company’s culture — so speak to the “S” in ESG. These are:

    • Customer satisfaction — what do customers really think about your business?
    • Employee engagement — how good is your ability to attract and retain talent?

    These can and should be benchmarked against others in your industry. Thinking as an investor, I’d want to know whether one of these measures was stronger than the other so I can target our investment strategy towards the weaker side, improve the success of the company through this, and create value from my investment. Equally, if the analysis highlighted these as very weak, you’d have to question the long-term prospects of such a business.

“Let us be empowered rather than engulfed.”

The ability to define, measure, and discuss ESG in a clear shared language will help us as business leaders to understand what our organisation’s role in society is — and develop a mission and ambition for creating a better, fairer future. Only then will our businesses be truly sustainable and able to achieve long-term success.

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 Gabrielle Mathews, a medical student and NHS England Youth Expert Advisor.


Gabrielle’s comment about who business leaders have the power to represent has remained on my mind. It’s easy to think you can speak for your entire organisation as a leader. In reality, you can only reflect your own background and path through the organisation — which is likely a privileged and well-trodden one towards the top.

Reflecting on this made me realise that decision-making must become more inclusive, and that we should consider the voices that are not in the decision-making room as much as those who are. For example, during discussions around diversity, if no one on the board has ever experienced exclusion based on background or identity, then how can you possibly claim to understand the full picture? One practical idea we discussed to prompt reflection is to introduce an “empty chair” at the board table, to represent the interests of those who aren’t there. This doesn’t make problems easier to solve, but it keeps us open-minded to the perspectives and experiences of others.


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

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