Feb 19, 2024 Nurole logo
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Building a board portfolio: listed, government and charity boards, with Anand Aithal (Cabinet Office Lead Non-Executive)

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Anand on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

On top of his Cabinet Office role, Anand is a NED at Saga plc, Polar Capital Holdings plc and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Tune in to his conversation with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings to hear his thoughts on:

  • Was being a portfolio NED always the plan? (1:03)
  • What advice do you have for people in the early stages of their board careers? (1:57)
  • Pre-interview, how did you make yourself stand out as a candidate? (4:00)
  • What role did your entrepreneurial background play in your applications? (6:03)
  • Are the same things that helped you stand out, the ones that help you add value to your boards? (7:31)
  • What executive experiences have been most valuable as a non-exec? (8:37
  • What was the biggest surprise when you started as a board member? (11:04)
  • What was your thinking around taking on pro bono roles? (11:48)
  • How do government and charity boards compare? (16:46)
  • What is the Cabinet Office board and what does it do? (19:46)
  • How is your role as Lead Non-Exec different from non-exec? (26:03)
  • How do your listed company boards compare to government and charity? (31:31)
  • What have you learned about managing time across your portfolio? (33:59)
  • Are there any rituals common to the highest performing boards you’ve seen? (34:54) And
  • ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡ (39:06

*This is an AI-generated transcript and will contain inaccuracies*

Anand Aithal 


Oliver Cummings: Hello and welcome to another episode of enter the boardroom with Neuro, the business podcast that brings the boardroom to you. I'm your host, Oliver Cummings, CEO of Neuro, the board search specialist and market leader, bringing science to the art of board hiring. Today's guest Anand Ital is lead non executive at the cabinet office and non executive director at Saga PLC.

Polar Capital Holdings, PLC and Envisage Limited. He's also an independent non executive on the global board of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. He was formerly a trustee of two non profit organizations Aldridge Education and Restless Development. Arnon began his career at Goldman Sachs.

After that, he co founded Amber Research, which was firstly acquired by Moody's and then spun out as a private equity backed company called Acuity Knowledge Partners. As well as working across multiple sectors and different types of organization, Arnon has also worked across multiple countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong, India, UK, Sri Lanka, and Costa Rica.

Arnon, a huge welcome, and [00:01:00] thank you so much for joining us today. 

Anand Aithal: It's a pleasure to be here. 

Oliver Cummings: Looking at your background, it looks like you've gone on an amazing journey, and a very wide journey starting in finance, to building and exiting a business successfully, and now a plural career across an interesting range of commercial, government, and non profit organizations. Was that always the plan? 

Anand Aithal: Well if that was always the plan, it wasn't a particularly well thought out one. I, it was a bit more meandering than that, and I think it was more about coming to a gradual realization about my intrinsic motivations. Many people really value building up expertise in a particular area over their careers, but for me, I just really enjoy doing new things and then figuring out how to integrate that with what I've learned in the past. And so, whenever I've come across opportunities to try something new, I've always seized them. 

Oliver Cummings: Many people coming from a finance [00:02:00] background really struggle to stand out when it comes to the high levels of competition and non executive roles. And I think sometimes people who've spent large parts of their careers overseas or maybe working for smaller companies can sometimes face similar challenges. They're super talented. They've been operating at a high level and then in the rarefied world of non executives they struggle to really stand out and distinguish themselves from from others. Is that something that you've experienced and how have you over overcome that having started in what was quite a technical financial role? 

Anand Aithal: Let's start with finance. Every board needs finance expertise, and it's an amazing skill to be able to take a series of data points and translate that into the world you see around you and to do vice versa.

I think the challenge the finance professionals face. is the [00:03:00] challenge that a lot of very bright individuals face. You're very hardworking, you're very smart, you're very knowledgeable. And in an interview context, the great temptation is to double down on all those things.

I think the mistake finance professionals can make in an interview, and it's certainly a mistake I've made, is you try extra hard to demonstrate your numeracy and you're desperately trying to memorize page 107 of the annual report, whereas the person on the other side of the table already knows you're very smart and already knows you're very numerous.

What they're trying to figure out is what else you can bring to the boardroom that's going to enhance effective collective decision making. So I think as as financial professionals think about this, step back from getting stuck in the weeds and pull yourself out and think about yourselves in a in a more rounded [00:04:00] context.

Oliver Cummings: I suppose there's a stage before that interview where you need to get on to the long list. For a role where you don't have the opportunity to present yourself or communicate even beyond effectively. If it's through a traditional headhunting process, you've got to somehow get spotted by the headhunter or in the case of a new role process, you need to put yourself forward on a electronic piece of paper. What do you think it was that allowed you to stand out to people at that stage of processes? 

Anand Aithal: As a financial analyst, you're quite used to thinking about companies and where they're going and strategically, what are the challenges you face and just taking the time to really have a guess at what you think a particular organization is going to be facing as real challenges.

And then think about how you play into solving those challenges. And you may not get it right, but I think you have to take a punt at some stage and, And assert this [00:05:00] is where I think I might be able to help you because if you don't make that assertion, no one else is going to do it on your behalf.

Oliver Cummings: But I guess a lot of financial professionals could probably lay claim To doing that and I guess you don't always get the opportunity to do that at such an early stage when you're sort of getting fished out of a pool of thousands or tens of thousands that are out there in the community by a headhunter or I think on average for a new role commercial role, you might have 40 people putting themselves forward for it. So to stand out there. What was it? Do you think that really has made you stand out for different roles?

Anand Aithal: I went from very, very small organizations and worked my way up the scale ladder. And I think at every stage, simply drawing out what I've learned from the roles I'm doing and how that may be applicable to a larger organization.

There's no great science to it. There's an art, I believe, in terms of how you present your CV and. Meld into the taxonomy of search firm [00:06:00] databases but it's not something I've particularly ever mastered.

Oliver Cummings: For me looking at it, I imagine people must have seen your success building a business as an entrepreneur, and that made you appear quite unique. There aren't many people who've started with an organization like Goldman and then gone and built a business, and it gives you an interesting mix of skill sets there. Did you ever feel that played out? 

Anand Aithal: Yes, but you know, at the time, that wasn't so obvious as it now seems with hindsight. I was given some advice when I started that the one thing I should not emphasize is the fact that I run my own business because there is a perception people who run their own business as being disruptive, all about them not very collegial, and certainly we all know individuals who are like that.

But equally, for everyone who starts a business that way there is someone else who just kind of stumbled into being an entrepreneur, spent years unlearning what they'd learned before. Not every [00:07:00] entrepreneur starts off selling sweets in the sweet shop at school. Most entrepreneurs are people who start off in the thirties or forties with an industry they know.

And see a dysfunction in that industry and think they can solve that dysfunction. So I think increasingly people get that, that having your own business is not the be all and end all and it is possible to use you in a corporate setting thereafter. But that even during my career, that perception has changed quite a lot.

Oliver Cummings: So when you think about the things that helped you stand out. Do you think it was the same things that have helped you add value to the boards that you're on? 

Anand Aithal: Up to a point. I think the attributes are probably the same. I think there's a lot of people will pick on breadth of career and the ability to tie disparate strands of information together. The very rich experience that being an entrepreneur brings you in terms of all stages [00:08:00] of business building particularly as companies think about new ventures or strategic departures it can be quite useful in that respect.

I don't think what CV though, is situational awareness. So the attributes are the same, but what I might emphasize in one meeting might be quite different to another meeting or a different board. 

After reading any board paper, it's always worth stepping back just for a moment to reflect on your own reactions to the paper, where that reaction comes from and whether that reaction is going to help or hinder the organization and its objectives.

Oliver Cummings: What would you say were the experiences as you look back that have helped you? Add most value now as a non exec. If you know someone listening to this, who's thinking about building towards a portfolio career, but still in that building phase and preparing for it and thinking about what should I do to ensure that I can add most value?

Anand Aithal: I'm going to give a shout out to [00:09:00] one group of professionals that I think is actually quite underrepresented on boards. And who's still said, I don't think often gets the credit that it deserves. And that's sales. If I had to pick one thing, it would be, in my experience, that has been really helpful.

It would be that when my business was just a small startup, and when we were trying to make sales to very large companies, you had no credentials, no power and no prestige. And the only reason you could get permission to be heard was by listening very carefully to the person on the other side of the table, and figuring out what mattered to them, and then figuring out a shared vision of success.

And that's often as much about body language as words. But those sort of enterprise selling skills are incredibly useful in a board context. And yet you won't actually ever see them on a CV very often.

Oliver Cummings: I love that. I've never thought about that in that way before. That's really interesting. So sales [00:10:00] as a path to developing the listening skills. And the influence skills that you need to remember. 

So you took on your first non exec position with Envisage, a financial technology software company back in 2015. How did you get that role and what made you decide you wanted it?

Anand Aithal: There was really no great science to that one. I was an early stage angel investor in the business. In fact, I was the first outside investor in the business. It was a company I'd come across with a great product. I think still to this day, favorable structural tailwinds. And I had personal experience selling to the same customer base. So when the founders. invited me to join the board it was fairly easy for me to say yes.

I think actually the single most important thing that they were interested in was not my domain expertise, but it was the fact that the business they'd founded had got multiple founders and the business I had [00:11:00] founded had multiple founders too. And they wanted someone who'd been on that journey. 

Oliver Cummings: What was your biggest surprise when you started in that role?

Anand Aithal: Probably the biggest surprise was the time decay on my executive knowledge was far quicker than I'd imagined. Especially in technology, the pace of innovation is so rapid that very quickly you find you have to defer to the superior knowledge of the executive.

If you don't defer, you're faking it. It's better to embrace that fact that the world moves on very quickly. And so actually for the past few years with that business, I found that my real insights have really come around people and management dynamics and stakeholder management and fundraising and investor relations much more so than actually around the product and product development. 

Oliver Cummings: It's definitely a trend that we see. In organizations looking to hire a real emphasis on recency of executive experience. And I think it's exactly that point you touched on around the [00:12:00] time decay of how quickly you become out of touch, especially in fast moving businesses, like the FinTech space.

You took on two trustee roles after a couple of years in that first non exec role with Aldridge Education and Restless Development. What was the thinking there on taking on these trustee roles alongside your day job?

Anand Aithal: I don't really think about pro bono and public service roles as career choices so much as life choices. As I reflect back, I've been very lucky in life with where I've ended up. And I wanted to give back, which a lot of people want to do, and give back in ways that resonated with me. 

I've always been lucky that education set me up on the right path. In the uk, we have lots of multi academy trusts that are always looking for board members and they're always looking for a, a broad range of skills.

So for me personally, I thought [00:13:00] this was a fantastic way to give back. I encountered one particular multi academy trust that particularly emotionally resonated. It's called Aldridge Education. They do fantastic work and they consciously focus on schools in tough areas. 

And those are often schools in non obvious tough areas. So it won't just be inner cities, it may often be smaller towns where you have communities of people with very low social mobility, very low geographic mobility. And it gives them something to aspire to. For me, you had the added dimension of that, that as an ethnic minority, you are often the beneficiary of other people trying to give you a leg up.

And here was a situation where the beneficiaries were predominantly not ethnic [00:14:00] minorities, but why should that stop me giving back to those communities? Diversity should be a two way thing, not a one way thing. So for me, that role was fantastically important. And then Restless Development is at the other end of the spectrum.

I spent 17 years of my career living and working overseas, primarily with young professionals hiring, training and managing their careers. And Restless is an organization that works with youth development in developing countries. And so it was a fantastic opportunity To share my expertise there.

The thing about trustee roles is they want something slightly different from a corporate non executive role. I think you have to be prepared to invest more time in them, because really, as part of your giving, you're giving your time and your executive skills. So embrace that. It is, it is slightly different from the corporate world in that, in that. 

Oliver Cummings: You did both of those roles for about four years before you took on shortly afterwards the cabinet [00:15:00] office role, and I suppose those were running in parallel for a period of time. What made you stop doing those trustee roles? Because I guess four years often they'll run for a six or a nine year period.

Anand Aithal: One of them actually was a four year role anyway. And the other was a more traditional three person lead. I think the issue was the pandemic which meant that you suddenly had rather than being able to space out a portfolio, each of which would have its own individual peaks and troughs, all the peaks and all the troughs were coming at exactly the same time worldwide. 

And that did create some capacity issues in, in one of the roles I stayed on beyond my three years specifically to get through the worst period of the pandemic.

But there was too much, if you will, resonance in the roles because of the pandemic and it just needed a different way of splitting things up, particularly once I took on the role with the cabinet office, which is a different type of public service role. And there's [00:16:00] only so much I think one should take on at any given time. 

Oliver Cummings: Looking at it from afar, I was thinking, okay, it's interesting. You started with. charity roles. And then it looks like you've made much more of a shift towards commercial roles. But actually the way you frame that there, that you see that cabinet office role as part of your public surface, that, that makes a lot of sense that that's sort of part of that giving back. 

Anand Aithal: Absolutely. And then some of the governance dynamics are the same as well. I mean, as a, as a trustee of a charity you were entrusted with other people's money and working in the public sector there are similar issues around accountability and trust. So the governance is somewhat different to a private company and the governance is probably somewhat heavier as well. 

Oliver Cummings: If someone's sitting there listening to this thinking, "Oh, I hadn't thought about doing a government role versus working in a charity". How would you explain how to weigh up those alternatives for them?

Anand Aithal: They are different. In the charity your expertise [00:17:00] is embraced to a much greater degree than it would be in any other sphere. They really want you to get involved and give it your all. In that respect, the public sector is much more like a corporate entity as much as there are more clearly defined roles between executive and non executive. 

I think there's a difference in the way you need to approach it mentally as well. People from business really often struggle historically when they go into public life. Because the command and control structures they used to in the private sector as a CEO, just don't work in the public sector. Power is much more diffuse. So you've got to go into it with the right mindset.

First of all, you are not the politician. If you want to be a politician. Go and stand for election, right? This is not a backdoor way of being a politician. Somebody else is accountable. Somebody else is the final boss. [00:18:00] And you're just there in the background. Secondly, this is bigger than you. The scale of this supertanker is massive.

It takes years, possibly decades, to change the direction of a supertanker. But during your term, if you can nudge the wheel, I don't know if they have wheels on supertankers, but that's the analogy I'm going to draw. If you can nudge the wheel in 0. 1 degrees in the direction of goodness. The scale of that and the impact of that is enormous.

Oliver Cummings: How many days were you spending on your charity roles versus the time that you now spend on the cabinet office role? 

Anand Aithal: I think in the charity sector, it's much more defined. You have your board papers, you have, if you've got a good relationship with the exec the exec will invite you in for your opinions on certain things and you can get as involved as you want with their permission.

In one sense in the public sphere, it's actually less defined. It's actually much [00:19:00] more entrepreneurial. We know the boundaries that you can't cross where it's actually the work of officials or elected representatives. But within that, there's quite a lot of scope to define the role in the way that you see fit. And that's slightly different from a charity sphere.

Oliver Cummings: Okay. And if you put, put numbers on the number of days that you were doing in those charity roles

Anand Aithal: I'd say it's probably 20 days. Whereas in the public sector, if you establish a good relationship with the executive teams, there is scope to spend a lot more time on that. I certainly spend nearer to even before I became lead executive at the cabin office as a, as a normal non executive. I probably did closer to 40 days and obviously substantially more as the lead. 

Oliver Cummings: Can you give those listening a bit more of a sense of what the cabinet office board is and how is it different from other boards? 

Anand Aithal: Sure. Let's talk about government boards in general, and then let's talk [00:20:00] about cabinet office specifically. I think it's easiest to start off by explaining what government boards are not. And they're not like private sector boards in three critical ways. 

First of all, you don't set the strategy of the department. That's set by manifestos. That's set by the prime minister. That's set by the minister. Secondly, you don't get to hire and fire the leadership team. That's the job of the prime minister.

And thirdly, you don't have the traditional accountabilities. Because the accountabilities, certainly in the UK system, go to the legislature. So ministers and officials are accountable to parliament, quite rightly so, they're not accountable to you. So in that sense, it's probably closer to an advisory board than a supervisory board structure.

And you're not there to set the policy of the day. Again, if you want to do that, go be a politician. Your job is to [00:21:00] help with the how, not the what. So there will be a policy and people are trying to figure out how to execute it. And execution in the public sector is incredibly complicated because the big difference between the public sector and the private sector is in the private sector, you get to choose your customers.

In the public sector, you don't. You have to take every citizen. And of course, you have to deal with a lot more edge cases a lot more cases that in the private sector would be deemed to be quote unquote, unprofitable customers. And here we have to make use cases that work for everyone. So by definition, the complexity of what you're trying to do is higher.

The scale is higher, and the constraints are higher because there'll be constraints in terms of transparency propriety accountability and other laws. And that just makes the job more complicated and you have a lot more stakeholders. [00:22:00] So, often the job of a non exec in a government sphere is to help politicians and officials manage that complexity and bring the perspective in the private sector that they may not otherwise have.

When you think about it, I've never met a harder working bunch of people. Politicians and civil servants. I know they get a bad rap about it, but actually that just isn't the truth. But you have to understand that their backgrounds and career paths are radically different generally to the private sector.

It's just the nature of politics today, that if you're going to go into politics you're unlikely to have a, have a significant career outside of politics before. And if you're working in a civil service you're unlikely to have been operating in a particularly agile or risk taking environment.

Again, that goes back to the question of the stakeholders. [00:23:00] If we have to deal with every citizen and treat them all fairly, we can't take quite the risks that a private sector organization can. 

So hear we have constraining forces. You have a system that is designed to please everyone. You have a system where it is difficult for people to force rank priorities because voters don't like force ranking priorities.

No one likes being told that what matters to you is important, but not as important as what matters to the person down the road. It's a really uncomfortable message. The politicians to deliver and the incentive structure for officials to take size is not there either appropriately so.

So we're almost the grist in the oyster to ask the difficult questions is okay. Well, we know that. Everyone has these wonderful aspirations for the world. But how are you going to do it in practice? How are you going to force rank all these different choices? Do you have the capabilities to make this all happen?[00:24:00] 

They're slightly nerdy. They're slightly operational questions. But the system needs that because there's otherwise there's no one else in the system providing that particular lens or type of input. 

Oliver Cummings: So can you bring to life for me with an example, maybe what exactly you mean when you say. You're helping them with the how rather than the what.

Anand Aithal: I'll give you two examples. The first is just an overall budget setting, right? Money's tight and there's an infinite degree of demands on government resources. Actually ministers have far less control over the allocation of resources that most people realize because in every year The vast majority of spending is already baked into the cake 

There's a certain amount that has to go on defense that has to say something that has to go in Benefits and in a certain amount that has to go on the upkeep of prisons and things like that.

You've really got constrained choice [00:25:00] with far more priorities than you have resources. So how do you go about picking the winners in that environment? It's very difficult. Or during the pandemic how many mobile mortuaries should we buy from a year ahead?

If we buy too many, and the pandemic isn't serious one might be accused of wasting public resources. If we buy too few and the pandemic is serious. We've got the opposite problem. If you're going to buy mobile mortuaries, what kind of mortuary do you want? Where are you going to put them?

Are you going to put them in hospital car parks? What shape are hospital car parks? If you put the porter cabins with the mobile mortuaries in one particular bit of the car park, where will all the doctors and nurses park? So how much is the right amount of spending? Really tricky operational questions.

Oliver Cummings: And really, really in the detail of the operations as well.

Anand Aithal: In that particular instance, it was. They're often in a larger scale. You know, these are all cases where if you've [00:26:00] worked in business, you will have something to add.

Oliver Cummings: You have progressed from being one of the independent directors to being the lead non exec. How has that changed your role, and why do you think That came about? 

Anand Aithal: What i've tried to do Is focus on creating systems and structures outlast the individual. Government non execs have been around for about 25 years actually. The role was redefined in about 2010 to put a bit more emphasis on getting people with private sector expertise and a little less emphasis on Governance type of backgrounds or public service, trying to get a diversity of thought into the system.

But they've still tended to rely on the quality of the individual individuals who get selected. But what we need is [00:27:00] to understand the big levers that government has. The big operational levers around technology, data, people, procurement. trust, service expectations, the very evolving nature of the relationship between the citizen and state.

And think about how you can coordinate those levers to deliver excellent public services. And in addition, deal with emerging risks such as cyber, for example, huge risk for the government. So what we've tried to do is separate out the things that clearly belong in the political sphere from the things that are more likely to lend themselves to non execs.

The things that non execs bring is they can be useful counterweight. The political cycle is one to five years. Sometimes it's 24 hours. Very often, if you're thinking about what services [00:28:00] you need to be delivering to the citizen, you need to be thinking about periods of five to 15 years. So we can bring that longer term.

During periods of political instability where ministers may change quite a lot. We bring institutional memory. And if we're doing our job well, and we are acknowledging the fact that we derive authority from the fact we have no power. And if we approach it sensitively. We can make sure that there is technical expertise at the top table when decisions are made.

One of the structural problems is politicians go into politics to change the world for the better as they see it. And they may have different ways of changing the world, but I don't think anyone can doubt the sincerity of the belief that they hold about the way to change the world.

But what they lack is necessarily the knowledge of how to change the world. And it's our job to bring that technical expertise to the [00:29:00] table. So the priorities, this is a long answer, has been to create the structures, the committees we rebuilt our board. with a greater focus on technical expertise, particularly around people, technology and project management, and maybe slightly less of the kind of traditional grandie approach to public appointments, just because that was the right thing for us.

There may be other departments or other public service functions where you do want that long experience and general management wisdom. But in that case, just given the very operational role of a lot of what Cabinet Office does behind the scenes as the corporate centre for government, that's what was right for us.

Oliver Cummings: It reminds me of this amazing fact I came across recently. that apparently less than 0. 5 percent of public projects are completed on time. I think that was a global figure. And I [00:30:00] imagine something like the cabinet board should be improving those stats over time as you bring in more functional expertise. Why do you think That is the case is something going horribly awry that is obvious or what's the issue?

Anand Aithal: I think that's a feature, not a bug. I, I don't recognize the statistic, but I've no reason to doubt you either. It'll be the same worldwide. The issue is, again, it goes back to this thing. If you're a body that has to deal with all citizens, you have to take into account all points of view. And that means there are lots of stakeholders. And as any project manager will tell you, The thing that really kills most projects is scope creep. And it is inevitable as you go through legislation and changes in ministers or changes in [00:31:00] administration and pressure groups and lobbyists that other considerations will come in.

And so to some degree, it's inevitable that a public sector project. is going to be a horse designed by a committee, and rather than completely pulling your hair out and fighting against that, you have just have to mitigate that at the margins and say, okay, well, we can accept some flex and a spec, but beyond a certain point, this is going to cause so much disruption to the project that you really need to stop.

Oliver Cummings: In addition to the cabinet office, you're on the board of one of the major global accountancy membership organizations, the ACCA. And last year you took on two more roles in the private sector, Potter Capital and Saga PLC.

Really interested to hear how you Think about those roles and how they're different to the ones that you've taken on because you've now pretty much got the full spectrum. You've done listed company, you've done the government, you've done the charity, you've done education, you've done [00:32:00] private sector as an entrepreneur. How have those listed company board roles been different for you? 

Anand Aithal: There's a slightly different governance framework and accountability framework, but actually there's a remarkable lot in common because so much of the dynamics around people and stakeholders. They're simpler in a PLC than in government.

They're simpler than in a membership organization. ACCA is the world's largest international accounting body. I'm not an accountant, but I'm the non accountant that sits on that body. And as we transitioned from having a global council with everyone represented, trying to make every decision to a much more slimline board with.

Delegated authority was a lot of cultural change that had to take place in that organization. But again, it was about culture, systems, communication, so that everyone knew their place in the new structure. These are all good hygiene factors in any kind of organization.[00:33:00] 

Oliver Cummings: As you map out where you want to allocate your time going forwards, will that deviate from the current status quo of your mix. Do you find yourself leaning to more into some roles than others? 

Anand Aithal: Having a very diverse portfolio of roles imposes a really good discipline on you, which is not to meddle in operational matters. And sometimes even when you're invited to meddle. in operational matters, you have to put that monkey

on someone else's back where it belongs. On the other hand I do find I have to be very conscious in probably allocating more time than I previously appreciated to just general catch up conversations and the softer stuff.

If your approach to broads is. purely transactional you're going to miss a bit. So it works both ways. I find I try and discipline myself to get more involved in the the people side and less involved in the operational side. 

Oliver Cummings: You [00:34:00] touched earlier about having come off some of those trustee roles because of time commitments. What have you learned about managing your time now that You know, you've got a pretty full portfolio. 

Anand Aithal: Try and stagger taking on new roles. There's a certain economy of scale. The first year tends to be incredibly intensive as you get to know a business and just learn facts about it and facts about the people. As you go on every time you do a board meeting, you are effectively learning more from reading the papers and you should focus less on the individual enterprise and more on integrating what you've learned from your other roles, to adding value to this particular role. Once you're over the hump I think you can find that two plus two equals five. But if you take on too many roles at the same time you can struggle. 

Oliver Cummings: I read this wonderful piece from Reid Hoffman drawing from his [00:35:00] experience these eight rituals that he's seen as common to the highest performing boards that he's worked with. I'm fascinated, given the range of boards that you've worked with, to hear what rituals that you're able to identify. that are common to the best that you've worked with. 

Anand Aithal: I don't know if it's a ritual yet, but I do see a lot of board subcommittees and ad hoc meetings where a lot of heavy lifting gets done.

I'm moving online and there's something quite personal about letting your colleagues into your home, particularly if it's, you know, something intensive, like a CEO transition or M& A or something like that.

And they're in your home every day. I think there are going to be some rituals developing around that online meeting experience. I don't know what they are yet, but watch this space. 

Oliver Cummings: That's definitely a topic that I've been wrestling with. There's all sorts of research showing most [00:36:00] CEOs want their teams back in the office or back in person, should I say not always the office. 

And yet most employees think they're more productive remotely where that's possible. And it feels to me that there's a disconnect and there was a nice observation. I think it was Adam Grant talking about it saying the trouble is most of these CEOs are trying or operating using the same operating systems in an online environment that they were in an offline environment.

And that's why it's not working. And we need to try different things in an offline, in an online environment in order to get the most out of it. Have you seen things that you think are kind of innovative in the way those online committees are working that has enhanced them versus the offline alternative?

Anand Aithal: Typically speaking all my main board meetings are in person. And that's entirely appropriate because those are in the diary a long time in advance. You've committed to them, you jolly well [00:37:00] turn up to them in person.

The nature of ad hoc meetings and sometimes subcommittees is that timings change and then suddenly you've got the practical matter of how do you coordinate quite a large number of diaries of quite busy people at the same time and online becomes.

The only way to do it particularly if you want to genuine diversity in your board serving execs will have a lot of constraints on their times. Board members who are. Working parents may have constraints on their time. It may vary by age. So I think it's just a recognition that one size does not fit all.

Where you can, I personally prefer to meet in person. But the reality is, it's not always possible. And it's, it's better to be agile than dogmatic.

Oliver Cummings: Why do you think that is, that you prefer to meet in person?[00:38:00] 

Anand Aithal: body language. Our bodies go beyond our necks and it's very hard to read a room if you just see a head.


Oliver Cummings: I, I do some VR meetings with, I have a sort of some peer tope scale up CEOs that I meet with on a, a sort of monthly basis. And we do it in VR and you recreate some of the body language. It is just the hands at the moment and it's better. What I really miss though is the eyes. And actually you can't see the surface of people's eyes and those small, subtle movements that you pick up in people's eyes.

So that certainly resonates for me.

Anand Aithal: I think particularly when you may be challenging someone's deepest held beliefs. And sincerest held beliefs in, in a board meeting. As a courtesy, you need to be there in the room. 

Oliver Cummings: Yes. And I think actually one thing I've certainly picked up on is it's the ability if you have a difficult conversation in the break to be able to go and follow up with that person and just reset the relationship if there has been a difficult conversation.

Whereas typically in an online environment, everyone goes off [00:39:00] and stews and comes back even more tense if there was a difficult conversation.

Anand Aithal: Absolutely. 

Oliver Cummings: Got it. Really helpful. The time has flown by, which means it's time to go to our lightning round. We're going to say a short statement and ask you for a short response if you're ready. Sure. So first up the boardroom behavior that irritates you most.

Repeating word for word what somebody else has just said. If you agree, just say, I agree they're two really powerful words. 

Best book every board member should read and why?

Anand Aithal: Not a book, but a magazine. Read The Economist. But start at the back and work forwards. The editorial pages are pretty predictable, but the data tables, book reviews, and science pages at the back can be really thought provoking.

Oliver Cummings: Favourite quote and why?

Anand Aithal: We have two ears and one mouth. The quote is thousands of years old, but in a world where social media has never been more relevant.

Oliver Cummings: Your most significant professional insight?

Anand Aithal: It's better to fail at something you enjoy. and succeed at something you don't enjoy. The [00:40:00] 

Oliver Cummings: worst professional advice you've ever received. 

Anand Aithal: I don't know if it was advice directed at me, but my eyes do glaze over when people in companies start talking about their product features rather than customer needs.

Oliver Cummings: What three things should those listening take away from this podcast if they take nothing else? 

Anand Aithal: Number one, you can add as much to a board if you've had a broad career as if you've had a deep career. Don't let that deter you. Two, be yourself and embrace the fact that Some board roles, in fact most board roles, probably won't be the right ones for you. And three, everyone should think about volunteering for public service roles. It's an amazing privilege to be on the inside. And you'll rarely if ever have another opportunity to give back at a comparable scale. 

Oliver Cummings: Thank you so much. That has been truly inspiring and you've reshaped the way I think about those government roles. The way that you [00:41:00] have explained that has really inspired me to think what an amazing way to. Deliver that public service, and I hope others listening will be equally inspired. So thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience and insights with us.

Anand Aithal: Pleasure to be here. 

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Anand on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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