Disruption and Board Learning

Key Findings from Fidelio’s “A Seat at the Table”

“A Seat at the Table” September 2018 focused on disruption and the implications for the Board. In this Overture, Fidelio flags the key threads running through the two-day Programme.

Diversity is recognised to be an antidote to disruption and once again Fidelio was delighted to welcome an extraordinarily broad range of contributors to the Programme. There was also diversity among the senior women participating in this flagship Board learning Programme. We were joined by a range of nationalities and by women working in the US, the UK and continental Europe typically in global roles. Participants comprised Executive and Non-Executive Directors in major corporates, as well as women who had reached the most senior levels of global professional services firms and were exploring how their insight and skills could be deployed in a Board context.

Over the two days in early September our “A Seat at the Table” narrative evolved with the key themes of disruption and diversity resurfacing and common trends across very different sectors emerging:


Building a Board Portfolio with Purpose

Margaret Casely-Hayford CBE, Chair of Shakespeare’s Globe, Chancellor of Coventry University and Member-Nominated Director at Co-Op opened the two-day Programme focusing on building a Board portfolio with purpose. This included developing an understanding and confidence of where one can add value in the Boardroom based both on attributes but also commitment. Margaret suggested revisiting the 8 year-old self who has an uncanny understanding of underlying motivations and characteristics. She also mapped how to build on core executive skills and experience while also acquiring new governance skills in order to be of relevance and have impact in the Boardroom.


Presence, Authority and Effectiveness at the Boardroom Table

A firm grasp of governance and understanding of the business are essential for Board effectiveness; softer skills are often underestimated although they play a critical role in Board dynamic. And here we turned to Chris Heimann, Head of Improvisation at RADA and Director at Spacecraft. Drawing upon his RADA, theatre and psychology heritage, Chris used a case study involving the Board-level response to a well-known incident involving heels and receptionists. This highlighted:

(i)    impact at the Boardroom table

(ii)   engagement at the Boardroom table and

(iii)  influence with fellow Board members.

Chris demonstrated that skills relating to impact, agility and impact in the Board room can indeed be learned.


The Chair’s Perspective: Building an Effective Board

Shifting industry and focus Steve Holliday, Chair of Senvion, Deputy Chairman of ConvaTec and Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Crisis, spoke very openly Board priorities. Drawing upon his prior FTSE 100 CEO experience, he underscored the importance of a firm understanding of what is reserved to the Chairman and what is reserved for the CEO. Smart Chairs will ensure this is clarified in good times and not wait for disruption. Steve also argued passionately for Boards to be focussing on what is critical to the business. Talent and people are essential to success and yet how much Board time is devoted to this topic? And finally – powerfully – Steve left our Alumni with one parting message: put yourself forward. Men do this with ease. Talented women should have no compunction about putting their hat in the ring.


The Diversity Imperative

This flowed neatly into Anne Francke’s analysis of the UK’s Gender Pay Gap reporting, what it uncovered, and how this gap can be addressed. Anne, CEO, Chartered Management Institute, concurred that the Pay Gap reporting does not measure like-for-like work but it does shine a powerful light on the gender distribution in senior roles and pay scales. This change in social and political expectations has created another source of disruption for UK Boards. Indeed, in the Financial Services sector the average pay gap is 22 %. Anne advocated that Boards focus not just on the snapshot figure but on the narrative of how the gap is to be closed. Her top tip for participants? Get a sponsor; research clearly demonstrates their value-add.


Putting One’s Head Above the Parapet

Jane Hill, BBC newsreader and journalist, developed the theme of resilience and putting oneself forward.  She gave practical advice for preparing for television interviews – face powder is an interviewee’s best friend.  Jane also reflected on the depiction and role of women in the media.  When being pushed for an interview

(i)     Always be prepared to say “no”;

(ii)    Seek to be interviewed on your own terms;

(iii)    Prepare three clear points and stick to them.


Personal Impact, Creating Presence: Beyond the Boardroom

Chris Heimann picked up again on personal impact and authority, but this time away from the Boardroom table. Social functions are critical en route to the Boardroom. While we fret about what we are going to say, Chris flagged words account for less than 10% of impact; tone and body language have a far greater impact. Networking is all well and fine, but it is critical to connect with key influencers; Chris provided a strategic and targeted approach and a tool-kit for effectively navigating the cocktail party.


Technology, Disruption and the Board

Disruption was our theme and Anne de Kerckhove, CEO of FreeSpee and Non-Executive Director at 888 Holdings and 7digital, went to work myth-busting:

(i)     Despite popular opinion to the contrary, technology is not an alien language

(ii)    And you don’t need to be fluent in the language of technology to navigate disruption.

Anne argued disruption is the flip side of innovation; it is a question of trial and error, of continuous learning and critically of failing and moving on. Yes, Boards need to provide long-term direction but they also need to ensure that the company is agile and can pivot. Board Members unable to connect with the disruptors within the company are failing the company. And Anne reminded all present that a digital presence is non-negotiable. This too is becoming a route to the Board room.


Networks, the Radar Screen and the Governance of Search

Mark Cumberlege, Founding Partner of Fidelio, picked up the theme of routes to the Boardroom. While gender diversity increases, the prioritisation of corporate experience has served to narrow paths to the Boardroom; an objective focus on what the role needs to deliver versus prior experience opens up a richer and more diverse talent pool. Viewed from the candidate’s perspective:

(i)     Be clear what value you add;

(ii)    Be targeted in your networking;

(iii)   Be deliberate in your application and interview process;

(iv)   Be clear it is never just a coffee.

Traditional Search may pigeon hole you; talented women have the option of determining their own Board career.


Governance and Power

The purpose of the Board is to promote the success of the company. But Boards face very different challenges at different stages of the growth of the company and the development of the Board. Bob Garratt, Visiting Professor at Cass Business School guided participants through this Board trajectory: forming, storming, norming and performing.  He revisited the Corporate Governance Code and challenged how well Directors know their seven duties as set out in the Companies Act. (Can UK readers of this Overture recite the Seven Directors’ Duties?) And against a backdrop of relentless change and disruption Bob outlined a model which enables the Board to keep on learning – surely a prerequisite for corporate success.


Public Companies, their Boards and Shareholders

Frequently the public company Board is deemed to be the apogee of a successful Board career. Susan Sternglass Noble, Senior Advisor at The Investor Forum and Non-Executive Director at Unity Trust Bank, brought the shareholders’ perspective. If you sit on a public company Board, do you understand the complexity of the capital market? And specifically, what do the various categories of investors want from your stock and from the Board? Susan explored through a case study on ASOS what happens when stakeholder and shareholder expectations for a company diverge – with a surprising outcome. The ability to handle ambiguity and complexity is inherent to the role of the public company Director.


The Perspective of a Chair: Financial Services and Beyond

A key tenet of the  “A Seat at the Table”  Programme is that there is a broad universe of Board roles. Cyrus Ardalan, Chair of OakNorth Bank, Citigroup Global Markets Ltd, Independent Portfolio Management and IFFIm, provided the Chair’s perspective on:

(i)     the complexities of chairing a major subsidiary Board for a global bank

(ii)    the challenge and opportunity of chairing a challenger bank Board and

(iii)   the extraordinary work of GAVI, its global vaccination programme and its highly innovative financing structure through IFFIm which Cyrus chairs.

Each organisation brings specific demands; all three are subject to regulation and scrutiny; all three require strong stakeholder engagement skills and Cyrus demonstrates that the CEO route is not the only path to become an accomplished Chair.


Activism and the Board

Lest complacency should set in, Cas Sydorowitz, CEO of Georgeson, took activism as his topic.  Any public company Board Director not alert to the threat of an activist on the register is misunderstanding what is happening in the markets. Initially a US phenomenon, activism is alive and kicking in Europe taking many forms from the strong governance focus of the passive funds through to M&A activism targeting valuation loop holes which can hold transactions to ransom. The best antidote to this very real source of disruption is knowing the shareholder base, being clear about expectation management and ensuring healthy shareholder engagement at Board and Executive level.



As has become customary the “A Seat at the Table” concluded with a review of:

  1. Frameworks of leadership
  2. A mirror on presence and effectiveness at the Boardroom table
  3. And a road map – practical and committed next steps on a successful Board career.

Fidelio’s goal with the Programme is to make a significant and ongoing contribution to preparing Boards for disruption through strengthening the pipeline of talented female Directors – cross-border, cross-sector, cross-function.

To learn more about Fidelio’s “A Seat at the Table” programme as well as Fidelio’s work building Boards fit for the future through Evaluation, Development and Search, please contact Luke Main on lmain@fideliopartners.com.

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