Wrapping up 2020


6 min read

From masks to flour, some things were tough to get your hands on in 2020. What we secured in ample supply, however, was time with leading chairs, CEOs, and company secretaries — the wise women and men of today’s boardrooms — who went out of their way to share their insight in this one-of-a-kind period.

As the year comes to a close, here’s a look back at some of the things they said that particularly resonated with us.

On the post-Covid questions we should ask

Whether it’s supply chains or remote working, the pandemic proved to us we didn’t have it all sorted just yet. But what big questions should boards ask themselves for 2021?

“What’s happening to us now is very much akin to a heart attack. The stuff that keeps the global economy throbbing along is being squeezed down — and that causes all sorts of problems. The first thing heart attack survivors do is ask themselves: ‘What behaviours caused the issue, and what can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’”

John Elkington, Founding Partner and Chief Pollinator, Volans

“These are not easy times, and the very first question chairs should ask their non-executive directors is, ‘Do you, as an individual with your own personal strains, have the time, the mental space, and the appetite to contribute to this organisation right now?’ It’s going to take a lot of effort and emotional energy to sort out the situation we’re in, and chairs should be mindful of what their directors could be going through.”

Douglas van den Aardweg, Chair, HSBC Life UK and Daiwa Capital Markets Europe

On finding purpose

Purpose is what guides you when things go wrong — making crises an opportunity to reinforce your values.

“There are many ongoing questions regarding what we, as a whole, want business to be about. Is it here to drive economic growth, or does it have other missions? Society hasn’t yet resolved that debate, which means directors currently sit at a crossroads of conflicting pressures. And without a clear goal it’s hard to define your corporate purpose.”

David Bennett, Chair, Ashmore Group, Deputy Chair, Virgin Money UK, NED, PayPal Europe

“Profit is only a tool to deliver the purpose of a business — which can solely be done if we have a non-financial purpose in the first place.”

Phillip Ullmann, Chief Energiser, Cordant Group

On fostering diversity

We know for a fact that diverse boards perform better than homogenous ones. In a crisis where everyone needs every edge they can get, how do you build the diversity you require?

“One thing that’s struck me is that young people give their perspective without fear. Sometimes, board members can be too encumbered by their past and the expectations around what a director must do or say, so it’s good to get someone who can shake things up a little.”

Sharon Thorne, Chair, Deloitte Global Board of Directors

“Short of adding hundreds of directors, you can’t be a perfect mirror of society. So, in addition to bringing external knowledge onto the board, it’s up to boards to expand their thinking and find other ways of broadening their experience.”

Alison Munro, Chair, National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure

“One of the justifications boards too often hide behind is, ‘We advertise but we don’t get diverse applicants.’ Instead, we have to turn that question around and ask, ‘How can we generate interest in our organisation beyond the usual suspects?’”

Helen White, CEO, Taff Housing Association

“People in position of privilege in our society are lucky enough to have the roles of sponsor and mentor conflated in a person close to them. If you come down the social hierarchy, we don’t have that in our parents and siblings, which is why we need to recreate those relationships in our organisations.”

Sir Ken Olisa, Chair, Interswitch Group, NED, Huawei UK, Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London

On creating a culture

When times get tough, your team’s culture and esprit de corps are what will get you through. But how do you build a culture that goes beyond statements?

“Enacting policies isn’t creating a culture; you can’t simply tell your managers on a Friday, ‘From Monday on, you’ll trust your staff more, and then it will happen’ — you have to define what that means and develop everyone, board included. It requires commitment from the very top, along with role modelling and constant development — you never get there.”

Angela Lockwood, CEO, North Star Housing Group

“Governance requirements may have directors concerned about reports ticking the boxes and covering diversity, stakeholders, and other crucial ESG topics. But if your board needs bullet points in your papers to ensure these issues are raised, your organisation likely has a culture problem, not a report problem.”

Justine Campbell, Group General Counsel and Company Secretary, Centrica

On taking stakeholders into account

Stakeholder capitalism was already on the rise, and Covid-19 pushed these questions even more to the forefront. How can boards get ready for the end of shareholder primacy?

“It’s frighteningly easy to become isolated — be it from the rest of an organisation when you sit at its top, or from society when you’re privileged. You can’t simply rely on what’s being reported to you by people who might have the exact same blinders on as you do. You need to pay your stakeholders frequent visits and find out what’s actually going on at the grassroots level. The days of autocratic leadership are over.”

Martin Gilbert, Chair, Revolut, SID, Glencore

“Start your thinking with the question of what’s the right thing to do for all stakeholders. Once a decision is made, run it through the regulatory filter. If I’m commencing all decision-making with SMCR as my primary criteria, then I’m probably in the wrong mental space.”

James Emmett, former CEO, HSBC Bank plc & Europe

“Employees take EGS issues at heart. Many of the younger ones have skills that are highly in demand and they’ll move to businesses that align with their views if yours doesn’t.”

Paul Lester, Chair, McCarthy & Stone and Essentra

On what makes or breaks board information

Even a great board can only go so far without great board information. What should directors expect from their board packs, and how can they get it?

“My heart sinks when I see a 250-page-long pack. It’s not just that it isn’t useful, it’s not even a requirement. The regulator doesn’t determine papers’ sizes, and is perfectly satisfied with short ones as long as they cover what directors should know and allow good decisions to be made.”

Angela Lockwood, CEO, North Star Housing Group

“If you don’t want NEDs to give you operational advice, stop giving them only operational information! As a CEO, you don’t want to over-influence your NEDs, but as a NED you have to get some minimum level of guidance on what’s actually needed from you, and not just figures.”

Helen White, CEO, Taff Housing Association

“I often read board packs that are over 1,000 pages… you’re usually 400 pages in before you get to the strategic bits, and by the end I have one question for the author: ‘What are you trying to hide in this?’ Great boards have confident chairs who aren’t afraid to push back when reports aren’t fit for purpose. They’re not simply saying ‘I don’t want this information,’ they’re telling management ‘You’re not providing meaningful information — just numbers.’”

Glen Moreno, Director and former CEO, Fidelity International

On questioning board dynamics

There’s an alchemy to an effective board, and it goes beyond getting smart people in a room. What can chairs do to get the best of everyone around the table?

“Be much more questioning when things appear to be going well. Often, non-executive directors are fully supportive when everything is fine, and only start to truly challenge management when things go wrong. Shouldn’t it be the opposite?”

Martin Gilbert, Chair, Revolut, SID, Glencore

“Make sure that the sum is greater than the parts. I’ve sometimes been in ‘incompetent groups of competent individuals’ where, on paper, we were a great board, and yet we made poor decisions together. Lots of big personalities aren’t always conducive to good collective decisions.”

Helen White, CEO, Taff Housing Association

“Don’t be afraid not to know everything. Not having all the answers is the very nature of a leadership role.”

Justine Campbell, Group General Counsel and Company Secretary, Centrica

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