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Baroness Helena Morrissey - Taking a stand: how board members can challenge successfully

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Baroness Morrissey on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

Baroness Morrissey is former/Chair of Altum Group, Fidelis Insurance Group, Investment Industry Diversity Project, AJ Bell and The Investment Association. In this conversation with Nurole CEO, Oliver Cummings, she answers:

  • Did you see the fee issues at St James’s Place coming? (1:42)
  • How can board members challenge the status quo successfully? (5:52)
  • How do you decide when to stand down and when to dig in? (12:00)
  • What do you know now which you wish you’d known at the beginning of your non-exec career? (13:36)
  • As a board member, how do you build honest and trusting relationships with colleagues? (15:28)
  • What are your most effective board rituals as a Chair? (18:07)
  • How do you formulate strategy with management? (25:19)
  • How can Chairs be more inclusive? (29:25)
  • What is the board’s role in supporting working parents? (31:04) And
  • ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡(39:54)

*This is an AI-generated transcript and contains inaccuracies*

Oliver Cummings: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of Enter the Boardroom with Newrolf, the business podcast that brings the boardroom to you. I'm your host, Oliver Cummings, CEO of New Roll, the board search specialist and market leader bringing science to the art of board hiring. Today's guest, Baroness Helena Morrissey, is chair of Alton Group, Fidelis Insurance Group and the Investment Industry Diversity Project.

She is a governor at Eton College, where she chairs the Endowment Committee and founder of the 30 percent Club, a campaign for more gender balanced boards. Formerly, Baroness Morrissey was CEO of Newton Investment Management for 15 years. Chair of AJ Bell and the Investment Association and lead non exec director at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

She has been named one of Fortune Magazine's 50 Greatest Leaders, the Financial Times Person of the Year and among Financial News 25 Most Influential People in the City over the last 25 years. Baroness Morrissey, a huge welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. 

Baroness Morrissey: Thank you, it's a pleasure. 

Oliver Cummings: So I'd like to start with your experience where you've taken a [00:01:00] stand as a non executive? Um, you were on the board of St. James Place, um, and where you stepped down. And there have obviously been some challenging, um, uh, headlines for St. James Place, long after you, you left, where, uh, one recently was, Wealth Managers Face the Music After Years of Rip Off Fees. Did you see this coming? 

Baroness Morrissey: It's a tricky subject. And I want to first of all say that, um, I think obviously got a new CEO. You've got lots of new board directors and I've got, you know, some great friends of mine actually work at the company now and are recent recruits and are doing what they can to kind of move forward from all of this.

But, you know, when I joined the board at the start of 2020, um, I felt that the fees were not transparent and they were very complex. And I tried to raise this, I mean it's in the public domain because I gave an interview to the Telegraph, um, because they wanted to find out how it was going on at St.

James Place and, [00:02:00] um, St. James Place agreed to this interview but, you know, having not got any joy in actually being told, and I understand, I mean I want to come back to why people might say this, because I'm not trying to land anybody in it again, because obviously it's all come out in the wash now, um, I was told it was just off limits, the subject of the fees, and, uh, my argument really was Well, I don't understand them properly, you know, sort of, how can the clients understand them?

And, and to be fair to me, I was appointed sort of after the cufflinks and cruises scandal that they had the year before, and I went in as a sort of change agent, and this was all very, you know, I queried this, were you ready for a bit of a shake up? Because I had done a lot of work on, you know, championing the consumer, just generally, um, especially when I was at the investment association.

So this was no, should have been no surprise to anybody that I was going to take this stance. Um, And I, and I do understand, you know, if you've got someone new in and they are rattling the cage and saying, you know, and it's obviously was a big part of the business model as is now very much acknowledged by St.

James Place. Um, but my argument [00:03:00] really was, well, if, uh, you know, the regulators will come up after this anyway, because if it's not clear, obviously there's a lot of regulatory oversight on the transparency of fees as there should be. But obviously, I mean, I learned from that and I was new to non exec. So I perhaps didn't go about it the right way.

Um, I'm sure I made mistakes in doing that, but I learned how difficult it is to say something very unpopular because you know, the business was going great at the time. You know, I was like, you know, the miserable person in the corner saying, but what about the fees? And this was not, you know, what anybody wants to hear.

So I do think it's very difficult. I mean, I've done a huge amount of work on shaking out the boardroom through 30 percent club and on the face of it, right? You know, gone from less than 10 percent women on FTSE 354s to 42 percent now and no legislation to get there. So that's, you say, great, but has the thinking changed?

And my impetus behind the 30 percent club was let's shake up cognitive diversity and the boardroom, let's have new perspectives. You know, I worked for Newton that we've [00:04:00] talked about already, where the motto was no one has a monopoly on great ideas. So I wanted to, that was my, you know, rationale. And so I have to say, Oh, so now I worry that we've changed the look of the boardroom, but actually it's still very difficult to people to say something that might be unpopular.

I mean, I look at the Barclays board, you know, back when Jeff Staley was first appointed and there were stories about him in the Daily Mail about his links with Jeffrey Epstein. There was obviously all that stuff about the whistleblower that he was trying to find the identity of and the fines from the FCA.

A number of, you know, Signals that things weren't quite right. And the board each time, which was very diverse, and I know some people on it, said we have full confidence in him. You know, and, and so why? You know, I don't know the answer to that, but what, did people raise it and get slapped down like I was, or did nobody, or were people too nervous to raise it?

So I feel, and this is an age old problem, we have groupthink, year after year, decade after decade. And we all afterwards say, Oh, we should learn not to kind of do that. We [00:05:00] should learn to listen to the challenger boys, but it's so hard to speak up if you are the, the, the lone voice on something like that.

It is, you know, and I'm not saying that to elicit any empathy or sympathy because, you know, I made my bed and I laid in it, it was the names place. And, and, um, you know, the fact that it wasn't something that we could discuss was, was a big, a big signal to me, but the, um, I look back and I think I should, I should have tried harder, you know, and, um, I'm glad that it's being sorted out now, but at great cost.

Um, and obviously they've set aside, Mark Fitzpatrick said I thought it was a 400 and something million pounds, um, for recompense. And you feel, oh, you know, if we could do it all again, if we go back to that conversation that I had and someone to answer it a bit differently or say, well, put a proper proposal in.

You know, I mean, I understand people can't just say ninja, oh, I don't like it, you know, that's not going to be very helpful. Um, so yeah, lots for me to learn from that, but also I hope, I mean, it's interesting to me that people haven't really followed up on that. I had a couple [00:06:00] of journalists sort of say, oh, you said publicly then, and you'd think people would be wondering, not to go back over that particular example, but what can we learn from it?

How can we make it easier for people to, to raise a flag about something? 

Oliver Cummings: Gosh, so for a non executive or chair listening to this, thinking, my gosh, if Helena Morrissey is sitting there challenging a board and finding it difficult to break through, what hope is there for, you know, those board members who don't have your, kind of, superstar standing? 

Baroness Morrissey: Well, I would say one of the good things about a boardroom is that it's a pretty egalitarian place when you get in the boardroom.

I mean, no one stands on any kind of status or, you know, you're as good as your contribution in the boardroom. And I, I, I do think maybe if you're a very, um, seasoned board director, perhaps you're given a little bit of extra thing, but I was a new person in the room. So in some ways I was the beginner there and I understand why.

And, you know, it was raised during the interview process, I raised it, they gave me a little booklet of the fees and I was clearly borrowing a bit, [00:07:00] so there was a chance for everybody really to say, but I did think when I joined the board that I would be able to get that point, sort of, more on the agenda.

Oliver Cummings: Is that true that there is no hierarchy in the boardroom? Because in my experience of boards, there is often, even though everyone is equal, there is often a Decision maker or a very significant influencer and often it's the chair. Yeah but Sometimes it can be someone else who's just a heavyweight thought leader and people you can see They'll end up watching to see what they go with before weighing in themselves 

Baroness Morrissey: No, that's probably true.

It's probably wrong to say I was suppose I was meaning that you're you're any past achievements Don't count for anything when you get in the room, you know, it's then what are you going to contribute? And um, You I do, I do agree. I think that there's often a leader within the board or a couple, sometimes it's a couple.

Um, and obviously one hopes, you know, sometimes I've just sort of explored, why is someone being listened to so much? And then, you know, they [00:08:00] are independent, but they've been around a long time or they know that, you know, CEO, or they can, you know, sometimes there's the kind of, but it usually is because they are, as you say, thoughtful people, one of the, They've seen them, people have seen them be right in the past, but it does diminish the board if you've got that, because obviously people have been appointed in their own right.

And in a way, what I worry about sometimes I have seen, I suppose the flip side of that where people are sort of bit cowed in the boardroom. Um, and perhaps I was guilty of that in this situation. And I, I remember when I chaired the investment association board and I was the only woman on the board and the board was 18 people.

So, so that was sort of, even though I was the chair, that was quite a challenge for me. And I would pick my spots, you know, there'll be like Three items on the agenda that I knew I would have a differing opinion from the majority and I think okay Partly because I don't want to be the annoying woman in the room if I'm honest because I was only one But you know, I would think okay.

I really care about number one Uh number two i'm all right with I can let that go number three I'm gonna go in on so I would sort of pick one or two and [00:09:00] really go for that because I'd know that I would otherwise sort of Slightly lose my nerve. Um It's tough if you don't have so this is maybe something Again, if I had my time again, and we certainly, if we'd had not had the pandemics, you're meeting in person because it's all became a bit magnified because I haven't got the relationships.

You haven't got the credibility. You haven't really built up, you know, that, um, credit in the bank. And then when you meet online, it became much more sort of, you know, we've got to get through this agenda kind of thing, rather than let's go down the alleyway on this one, or let's sort of explore that idea a bit more.

Um, but I think my advice to any new board director, It's definitely to cultivate some relationships within the board so that you have your, you have your allies, you have your, you don't have to always agree with each other, but someone who will kind of say, you know, bring you into the conversation sometimes, even if the chair isn't minded to.

Because there are different personalities in the boardroom. It's not all people who are very gung ho, um, and, and it can be difficult to get even, well, particularly if you have a dissenting [00:10:00] opinion, you know. 

Oliver Cummings: Well, one of the things we do in the community is a speed networking event. Which is a lot more fun than it sounds, I promise. And we usually have them built around specific topics. And one of the topics we did recently was something called Cassandra Syndrome, after the Trojan priestess who was predicted the fall of Troy, but was cursed never to be believed. And it was a theme that We've picked up through the masterminds that we've done that that happens again and again and again.

Yeah, no, but, but, but it happens too often that people see these things coming. 

Baroness Morrissey: Yeah. 

Oliver Cummings: And yet they're not heard. So you've talked about one thing someone listening to this who might be facing that situation can do, which is build relationships with the board. Anything else from you've learned from your experience that someone in that situation can do?

Baroness Morrissey: Yeah, I think, um, I mean, I'm a, I'm not a quitter. I, you know, in most of my life I've sort of battled through sort of things and I've got lots of children and that isn't always easy when you combine that with a career and so forth. [00:11:00] But I think in this case, because I, I really felt I had, I felt I had made a mistake by speaking to the press about something I was obviously frustrated about, it wasn't getting anywhere inside, uh, the firm.

Um, and. I ended up, you know, having to been asked to apologize to CEO for my, for my remarks about the fees, you know, and I kind of just went in the, at that point I was at such a low, I thought, I've just joined this board. I'm not getting my point that I really want to get across, across. I, I've now kind of burned all the bridges with everybody on the, you know, by speaking out on just, I was just asked a straight question by the journalists.

I hadn't intended to kind of bring it up necessarily. I've just asked, you know, if you ask me the question, I give an honest answer. And, and then I, and I, I didn't, what I should have done with hindsight. And that's where I think going to your mentors, your allies, somebody outside that situation who can, um, Speak to it in confidence.

Obviously these are very sort of privileged conversations, so you might want to sort of, oh, the time it was, you might want to, you know, disguise the example a little bit, but to kind of get some, some [00:12:00] ballast and get somebody to give you that extra boost that you need to kind of not, you know, lie down and play dead, which is sort of what I did really.

Um, and I think, you know, when you look back at the financial crisis, I always said. I mean, that was, again, a lot of people were talking about the St. James Paste fees. I was young, I wasn't the only person who said this years ago. Um, I was the only person on the board, perhaps, but there was other people. And then, in the financial crisis, a lot of people were calling out, you know, the indebtedness of Western banks, the leverage in the system.

But, you know, as the famous quote said, everyone kind of, the music kept playing and everyone kept dancing until it didn't. And again, you think, well, what stopped those people who, Saw it coming not saying anything and it was you know, the the vested interest the you know What's gonna happen to me? It's it's a very tough gig in that situation, you know to stand up and Sort of speak out a turn really.

Um As we said no one likes a Cassandra but the reality is with the what I have learned and this is why am I if anyone is listening and has a [00:13:00] Situation that they can have a parallel to and they're afraid about speaking up Work out a way of doing that because the problem will only get worse And it'll come crashing, you know, you can't hide these things under the carpet as we've seen in that particular example.

And it costs more money, more people suffer, the problem gets worse. You know, it doesn't go away just because you haven't raised it. So, um, if you join a board you're doing it in good conscience because you want to, you know, work on, for the company and act in the best interest of all the stakeholders. And therefore, you know, that's what you're signing up to.

Somehow you've got to persevere. Thank you. 

Oliver Cummings: Interesting. Listening to you talk, it reminds me actually, a number of our Mastermind participants have brought issues where they've had doubts about raising them and then found themselves re energised by the group saying no, you've got to raise this and, and gone back and having, I think in particular, it's the considering what's the worst that could happen here has [00:14:00] been helpful for them and when, often as a board member, you feel quite on your own.

And you don't have a sounding board. And so just being able to verbalise that, what's the worst that could happen, uh, seems to have really helped. 

How have you thought as a board member, I think one of the most difficult decisions you face is when to disagree and commit. And when to draw a line in the sand and say, I'm standing down.

Baroness Morrissey: Well, I think it's, um, I mean, people have their different levels, I suppose, where they think actually we've had the, you know, cabinet meeting as it were, and then you get behind the decision and move on. And I think for many topics, it's not a life or death kind of, or go or stay kind of issue. I think it's only, I mean, I think it is over something like.

You know, the CEO has done something that you think is completely, you know, indefensible. I think it's over, you know, perhaps a proposed acquisition that you think is complete mistake. I mean, I think these are the big topics. I think obviously the [00:15:00] idea is that you sign up and I've had a couple of missteps in my early non exec directorship time, but now things seem to be going more settled, but you, you've got to fight on most of the time.

And so yes, have your say, make sure you've got your points on the table. in most cases and then move on. But if it's just something that you actually has changed the nature of the company for you to the point where you, you cannot in good conscience serve on the board, then that's, that's the time to go.

Oliver Cummings: You've talked a lot about learning. You've obviously got a very strong growth mindset. What, for someone who's about to embark on their non exec career listening to this, do you know now that you wish you'd known? At the start of it. 

Baroness Morrissey: So I think um I think just spending more time and again I'm, not making excuses for myself, you know starting out just as we hit lockdown It made it harder to build the relationships and I think that absolutely is critical.

So now The boards that i've joined, you know the last [00:16:00] few years then I you know, make a I spend a lot of time and you have the formal induction, but you've got to do more than that You've got to understand who you're you know , you know, who everybody on the board, including the people that you're probably gonna tend to disagree with, there's, there's a good board would have people that you'd be violently in disagreement with as well as agreement with some of the time.

And so work, really understanding that and spending time really beyond the headlines, beyond the surface. Getting to know people is, is critical. And I think spending time with the chair, um, is again, absolutely vital. Because clearly if you're gonna make a contribution, I mean. The best course I ever took was one on inclusive chairing.

And I thought I was inclusive chair before I took the course and then I realized I was but a poor imitation of an inclusive chair because this course was teaching you that actually what you're not trying to meet is to confirm everything you knew before you went in the room or when you went in the room.

It's the new things, it's the new ideas, it's the new piece of information. And obviously inclusive chairing is, is definitely going to be [00:17:00] bringing out those opinions that might not get heard. Everyone's heard from the person who's always gonna, you know, contributes on every topic. And you probably know their position before you even go into the room.

Um, so a skillful chair will bring out that. Uh, contribution. And I, I mean, when I chair boards, I don't ask for everyone, I explicitly ask them not to feel that you need to contribute on every single point, because obviously then you just go round and round, it's like having a panel discussion when everyone's asked the same questions.

Diminishing returns by the time you get to the tenth person. But to really, I'll work on what they want to discuss before the meeting, um, and make sure that we haven't skipped over anything, that they've had an opportunity to say their piece, particularly if they've got an outlying view. So make sure you have a great relationship with the chair.

And if you feel a bit shy, if it's your first ever board, then just double down on all of that, you know, do more of it. And you won't be irritating. People will admire you for kind of wanting to step up and understand about the company. Um, I've never seen anybody rejected for trying to, you know, schedule too many meetings [00:18:00] with, with people.

They, they like that. 

Oliver Cummings: What does that mean in practice? You've talked about the chair and the non execs. Is it also the execs? Yeah. But in terms of in practice, is that about booking time for a coffee with them or a lunch with them or going for a walk with them? What would you do? I 

Baroness Morrissey: keep it quite informal, but often, I mean, I've realised that especially if you're meeting execs, they will tend to produce a presentation for you and talk you through it.

So what you're really trying to do is go beyond the headline narratives and you really want to understand what makes them tick, what they love about their job, what they don't like, what they worry about. Yeah. That's really valuable information as you go into a business and that personal relationship, that personal rapport.

And that's why when I'm, maybe I'll say, let's just have a coffee, don't bring a deck, let's just kind of, I think coffee's great because lunch can be, end up sort of, you know, taking forever. Everyone's sort of rushing to get back to their office or their desk. Um, it just really shows again that you're interested, that you, you, you want to learn.

You're not coming in with preconceived notions that you're going to sort of, you know, you're push down on everybody. [00:19:00] Um, so yes, I, I just go that extra mile, I think when you're starting out and then if you, if you hit roadblocks, I mean what I should have done in that situation is perhaps I should have gone and talked to the SID about it or I should have, you know, I should have said I've got this concern.

I again, look back and I think I was very naive about the different sort of ways that you can get a point across if it's not immediately landing. Um, perhaps it would have been the same result, who knows, probably would have been. Um, but you again can take it offline, you can, you can go and try things one on one.

And in fact I had first raised this topic, I mean actually I'm trying to think even if it got into the boardroom with the, with the, the key executives and it was, it didn't even get further than that, you know, because that was like a no. Um, so again don't be, don't be just put off by, you know, something not quite landing the way you'd hoped it would the first time.

Oliver Cummings: How much do you use in camera, uh, board discussions to get these sorts of things [00:20:00] out if it's the executive blocking? Um, just discussions amongst the other non execs. 

Baroness Morrissey: So, I mean, all the boards that I've sat on have always had, like, what we have called here in the UK, non exec session, what the Americans would call an executive session.

And I don't understand that because you've asked executives to leave the room. Um, and I think that is, again, I think it's good practice. I mean, um, even if you're running way over time, I think it's just to say, let's have a non executive session, ask the executive to leave the room. 

And, um, I think at the end of every committee, particularly obviously audit, just make, and make sure that it's seen as completely, I'm going to use the training expression, safe space, you know, that people don't feel, you know, there's anything that's off limits.

That was the, that was the worst thing about that experience for me, that I was taught off limits, you know, because that is not something that you forget. Uh, you need to have people realizing, and if you're new to a board, you say, I've got an issue, and don't feel just, you might feel that you're the only one, but, you And as you said, what's the worst that can happen?

People might disagree. 

Oliver Cummings: One of my [00:21:00] favourite pieces of content recently was from Reid Hoffman who wrote about the eight rituals common to the highest performing boards that he's worked with across the thousands in the scale up space.

I'm really interested, you've worked with a wide range of boards, to know what as chair are the rituals that you've brought in, having had the opportunity to cherry pick from the best that you've seen? 

Baroness Morrissey: What would you mean by a ritual, just to check I'm on the right ballpark here?

Oliver Cummings: A ritual might be something like, um, when they are discussing a set of opportunities. Um, he will basically ask all of the board members, he'll give them a hundred points. Uh, and he'll ask them independently to each allocate those hundred points across the different opportunities that they are considering.

Okay. So that you don't suffer from the person who's speaking first anchoring everyone else, but you get the true value of the cognitive diversity in the room. [00:22:00] And then you look at that picture, and I think they use an online tool to do it, and you can see where the points of difference, and you can very quickly see, well, we're all really aligned here.

Baroness Morrissey: And 

Oliver Cummings: actually there's huge divergence here. So let's spend our time discussing where we're different. 

Baroness Morrissey: Yeah, 

Oliver Cummings: so that would be one, one ritual. 

Baroness Morrissey: Yeah. 

Oliver Cummings: Another would be where he asks All board members the exec and non exec before the meeting To write down the answers to a few questions, which are how's the business going?

uh, and What do you want to focus on in the meeting? And so then again, you've got an aggregated list and you can see what everyone else has said Once everyone has submitted you can vote up or down. So again the agenda then is Spend on the time that everyone collectively not the loudest speaker thinks is where you need to be spending your time 

Baroness Morrissey: So happily, I have introduced that second one, and um, so, before board meetings, you know, I have scheduled calls with all of the non execs and [00:23:00] exec directors, asking those two questions.

I've actually had the call rather than gotten to write it down, but maybe I should go forward and get it sort of so I can, and I'll write it down on my end, um. And I, what I realized that way was, you know, when you're having a discussion with the company secretary or with the executives about what's topical, that list only vaguely overlapped with what the board members actually wanted to talk about, particularly the non execs.

And so, um, it, I, what I've now introduced and some of these boards that I'm working on are relatively new because, for example, just listed. So, you know, obviously everything is a little bit, um, uh, Uh, evolving quite quickly, and so now we've, we're changing the, the cadence of the board preparations. Because before I said a bit of, I think one of the worst things is kind of a formulaic approach.

This is the standing agenda items, shuffle in a couple of topics that we know are key, and then off we go. Whereas actually, the likelihood is if you haven't met for a quarter or a couple of months, then there will be things that are on everybody's minds. And [00:24:00] so that has been very striking to me that. You know, I'm already three out of three, you know, on the top three topics.

So, um, I also think being very rigorous about, uh, if you aren't getting enough time for certain topics, or if you aren't scheduling enough time, um, so you're constantly running over, or, you know, Constantly feeling everything's in a rush and obviously that's not great if you want to do topics justice Um, there's obviously a balancing act between very tight For last board of veterans reviewers one of the Board members said that I needed to run a tighter ship and another one said I needed to give more time to all these kind of questions.

So I was like, okay, so this is obviously not going to be able to win on both of these. Somebody wants to race through the agenda, another person wants to take three days where we take two. So, being honest about actually, and what I've done there is I've changed. I've said we've got to meet, we're trying to do too much in a day, let's meet the day before, half a day, dinner, new day, fresh energy, thinking overnight.

So, [00:25:00] Uh, pretty obvious practical things really, but I think that makes such a difference to everyone ending up this sort of bad tempered after eight solid hours and um, just feeling like the lot, the biggest topic was left to the, to the end or something, you know, something can crop up right at the end. So that's the other thing going into the meeting, cause you might've had, I would have those calls with people three to four weeks ahead of the board agenda being finalized.

And then. Of course all the board decks will run the normal management information and train and then these topics will be worked through. But then going into it you know something might have happened the week before so again you gotta be a bit flexible. That's my other sort of hack I suppose, that's the chair, just don't just plough on regardless and leave the big topic to the end but say at the beginning of the meeting, okay, we're gonna change things around, this is what we're gonna address, I mean it's so obvious really you wouldn't go into any normal other meeting.

Um, if you had a family gathering, you wouldn't ignore the elephant in the room and carry on as if nothing had happened, you, you address it. So I think that kind of [00:26:00] openness, and I've learned to have a lot of, on the topics that are really knotty, uh, for example, that's compensation is always a challenging one for executives.

Um, but instead of just like, let's get in the room, thrash it all out, I've had subgroups meet. You know, in the run up, right, weekly meetings, have a little project meeting, so that even if we don't nail it in the meeting, we've got so far down towards a proper solution, um, because board time, again, that's one of the intrinsic challenges.

I mean, even if you had eight board meetings a year, and I, I'm involved on several boards that are global, you know, so people, the travel, that, you know, it's just not practical to extend sometimes. So You just gotta work out a solution to this age old problem of, you know, you might run out of time. And therefore, the prep.

I'd say one word, prep. If you're a schoolboy listening to this, you don't know. Or a schoolgirl. But yeah, it's absolutely vital that you go into that room. And whether it's because you've got a real clear sense of [00:27:00] the six topics that are really gonna be the tricky ones, or three even. Um, Or you've just got a long way to go before you've agreed on the compensation arrangements or whatever it is you, you're ready.

Um, and that makes a huge difference to whether it ends up feeling like a bit scrappy run out of time. No one was really satisfied to actually, that was great meeting and you want that feedback. You want afterwards and people to keep does it last thing feedback, you know, no, just wait for the annual board effectiveness review.

You know, I get, I ask people, and sometimes it's pretty obvious if it hasn't gone well, so don't sort of belabor the point if it didn't, we didn't achieve what we wanted to do in that day or two. Do you 

Oliver Cummings: do that? So I do, at the end of every meeting, I ask, this is in my, with my executive team, and actually I've got the boards that I'm involved with to do it the same.

I ask everybody by show of hands to score it, on a score of one to ten. And then go through what went well, even better if, and I leave like a good chunk of time to allow that. And because you do it every time, it becomes a lot less, [00:28:00] um, pointed. 

Baroness Morrissey: Yeah. 

Oliver Cummings: And so actually when you have a bad meeting, I really like that in some ways, because it's a great opportunity.

Brim, brim, brim. Exactly. Opportunity to learn. Um, do you, when you do those people, what's your approach? 

Baroness Morrissey: No, well I think I'm going to adopt that, Ollie, actually. I think that sounds a very good show of hands at the end of the meeting, because I would tend to go back to people after, you know, especially one of the things I find is that everybody's, you know, after eight hours, which can happen, of pretty much no breaks, it's not a great moment.

Even if you got there in the end, no one's going to say, yay, that was great, you know, because it was painful. But I think, I usually go back to people a day or two later, um, and I'll put in calls with people if things have gone wrong, you know, when we had a board offectionist review and there were kind of a couple of weaker scores, but no further commentary about it.

So I schedule meetings with people and say, but I think maybe a lot of non execs aren't quite used to that slightly seat of the pants sort of feeling about it, but it's probably a good thing to, to get used to because otherwise we go back and we start to [00:29:00] convince ourselves that we got there in the end.

Um, And those big topics, it might also be a way of just checking that we haven't missed something big as well, because it might be a chance saying was there something that you wanted to raise we didn't get a chance to. 

Oliver Cummings: Another penny drop moment I've had recently talking to a previous podcast guest Roger Martin who was talking about the strategy day and why strategy days or two days are so often for, in his experience, 80 to 90 percent of organizations a failure because The way he described it was the executive team prepare like a A star student.

For this big exam and they come to that meeting and all they want is a gold star from the board telling them they're great. Meanwhile, the board come to that meeting thinking we've got to add some value and so we've got to change the way they're thinking about it. So their, their goals are diametrically opposed and everyone comes away feeling disgruntled because the exec feel like they didn't [00:30:00] appreciate all the work that we did and they didn't understand it anyway.

And the board come away thinking, well, they didn't listen to the challenge we gave them. And his. Solution to that is to break it down into stages to say, first, you spend some time agreeing what the problem is, then you go away and you will come up with a set of options, solutions and assumptions around what would have to be true for those solutions to be the good ones.

You agree that and then you go away again and people do some more work to finalize those up and really get the detail behind it. By breaking it up, you, it becomes a much more collaborative. What's your view on that? Because obviously that iteration takes a lot of time versus, you know, as you said, people are pressurized and time in boards, um, got lots of other commitments.

What's your 

Baroness Morrissey: exactly what we did. We didn't set out as beautifully as you just have. Uh, we did at AJ Bell, um, when I was chair, because when I joined, I went to one strategy day that it was for, I was chair and it was like a two days. And again, you get this sort of sense of, I think it probably wasn't quite as [00:31:00] 80 percent disaster, but it was still like, maybe it didn't feel quite that we'd achieved all the things that you would want to achieve.

And certainly the last half day of a two day session anywhere is going to be a little bit like lackluster and everyone's sort of had enough, especially got dinners and lunches and, you know, you see each other for those four days. So what we did, um, was change it and had the executive come up again with sort of, I suppose, the range of options, some of the problems, some of the things going gray, you know, and then that started.

Uh, instead of us just meeting in July, which that started in like March and we went through and we'd had two board meetings in between. They had March and May. We had April and June. Then we met for one day and, and it was so much better. It was iterative and some of the topics that we'd felt we never quite have enough time.

This is always going to be the case. I'm not picking that company specifically, but it's always going to be the case that there's a big, shall we go into kind of question, whether it's a region or an area. new type of investment or a, you know, [00:32:00] some, something that you want to give proper time to. But this way we got to discuss that before we actually got to the strategy day and actually we don't want it on the agenda anymore because we'd look through that and we gave it this proper time.

So I think it's very important to have strategic discussions as a board. Otherwise you are just sort of second guessing the execs. But I think it's, it's a good practice to do it in a kind of evolutionary way. And, um, Certainly I'm not a fan. I did have one online for two days when it was the pandemic, a two day strategy day online.

I mean, I really lost the wheel to by the end of that. 'cause, you know, we literally, people turn off the camera and you know, their dress up to going up to the, standing up to shake their legs or go to the little, get a cup of coffee. It was desperate. You know, you felt so unhealthy and so eyes glaze over.

I just don't think the human being is spent is supposed to operate like that for two days in a little cell by yourself, you know? So, um. That was just, you know, that was a nadir of it all really. But I think, I, I believe that strategies can [00:33:00] work, but let's be honest about it. And I've certainly witnessed the A star student presentations and everyone feeling a bit unhappy at the end of it.

So let's be more open about what are the questions go before the present. I think a lot of prep for board meetings or strategy days, a lot of it, people will be working on it, not realizing that there are these specific things on people's minds. So again, a bit more dialogue earlier on about What do we actually want to discuss here?

We don't want to just have a rollout of how brilliant everything is going in the Northwest or, you know, this new product that we've launched. We don't, we know that because that's our normal board meeting, but we're actually not sure if we should embark on this venture or, you know, should we hire this new team, you know, or this finder team in this particular area that we're probably going to struggle to build from scratch.

You know, big questions where you then can benefit from the Hopefully it's not just manufactured or we must add value but actually people with experience of doing some of those things. 

Oliver Cummings: Yeah you talked earlier about the inclusive chair being a course that you [00:34:00] did, being an eye opening moment. Can you talk more about the sort of practical insights that you took away from that? 

Baroness Morrissey: Yeah, so often it was, um, a lot of it was about rather, um, just being much more aware of what you already know when you go into the meeting, and making sure you don't just repeat that. And obviously that's not just for the chair's benefit, but for everybody.

So, the typical, uh, thing is people have submitted a board pack, Um, and then they walk through the presentations, you know, and actually we know all the what's in the presentations because we've walked through it. So obviously you want to give the exec or whoever's done the presentation a chance just to highlight anything that they might think doesn't come through from emphasis in the report.

But you've got to move on with the questions quickly and you've got to know going into it where are the likely issues with things. So, um, so that was a very interesting thing because I think It's almost like a, maybe it's laziness. Sometimes people just think, Oh, there's the agenda. There's the pack, there's a report.

Someone's going to, even if it's headlines, they're going to walk through it. And that's really not adding anything really. Um, and then [00:35:00] this other point about knowing your characters, you know, knowing your characters. And of course we all know that people are going to talk a lot or pipe up whenever there's an opportunity.

And then we know that people are going to be a bit quieter, but it's sometimes a little bit more subtle way. There's somebody. Who might not normally be the person to contribute on an issue, but might actually have the exact right points. So being, and obviously you don't, you're not a complete psychic.

You don't know exactly what that was going to be. But, um, it might be someone who's got a marketing background and a non marketing company, who's got an idea about a risk to the brand or something. You know, there might be something that comes up in the risk committee that that person's got. You've got to be really agile, is the way I'll come back to, and attuned.

And then make sure that you haven't. Just kind of being, you know, A, B, C were done. Um, but go round those alleyways. Because that's where the interesting things come out. 

Oliver Cummings: Now before we move on to the lightning round, I want to quickly talk to you about the board's role in supporting working parents. You've been a [00:36:00] long term advocate for greater parental support.

I was about to say 

Baroness Morrissey: long term parent, which 

Oliver Cummings: is also 

Baroness Morrissey: true. 

Oliver Cummings: Um, Arguing for flexible working, for example, long before it became fashionable, um, it's something I also feel very passionately about, that the current statutory, uh, support is, just doesn't work, especially for single parents. At the same time, it's incredibly challenging for organizations, especially smaller organizations, to cover the cost of, um, parental support.

What's the board's role? 

Baroness Morrissey: So I think the board should have a role. Um, and perhaps I can just take one step back because I think, you know, we've talked about strategy days and I'm one of these people that thinks that culture eats strategy for breakfast. And before you get into the strategy discussion, you need to make sure you've got the right culture, the right people, all the blow ups that we've had have all been because the culture's wrong or there's something wrong.

Rotten in the state of Denmark, because they say that it might not be the whole culture, but somebody, a bad apple, someone's been able to get away with something. So [00:37:00] culture first, and culture obviously comes from the people that you have, as well as so called values, but often values are written on a page, they're not lived and breathed.

So, if you're going to have the right people, you've got to have, uh, and I'm going to quote, it's going to sound very sort of, um, I don't know if liberal kind of thing, but anyway, so Aviva investors, um, when I questioned them about why they introduced equal paid parental leave in 2017, and I wasn't obviously questioning them like, why the hell do you do this?

I was like praising them, but what was the motivation? They said, well, we wanted happy employees and we knew that happy employees would be more likely to, um, stay with us, uh, could be really engaged and productive when they're in the office, um, better retention obviously. And, um, So I thought, wow, that's really, I've never heard a company say we're doing this because we want happy employees.

And they said, we think happy employees are people more likely than to have a happy family life. And therefore we want men to play as much of a part in that as the women. And we have a lot of men here because it's a financial company. So, you know, then we started [00:38:00] this experiment really. I mean, they didn't describe it as an experiment, but I don't think they knew exactly what the takeout would be and how much it would cost, etc.

And I don't think the boards, I mean, I, I've, I've served on a number of boards and I've been on the other side of it. Most boards, I don't think, think that having a focus on what they would call diversity, equity, inclusion, but it's really just kind of the talent and making sure that different types of people are supported in their arrangements that mean that they will be able to be very productive, very engaged, work hard and be happy in their lives and sustain their work as well, sustain their energy.

I don't think boards ever discuss that. I actually do not record a single board discussion. Um, and obviously some of the boards were on chair, it actually has come up, but that's because I've, you know, engineered it. Um, but it's just, it's not something the boards look at. I mean, I, I've suggested that, for example, that diversity should be on, um, strategy day discussion.

And of course now diversity has become a bit of a tarnished [00:39:00] word, people are sort of associating it with woke capitalism. But obviously Go back to what the word actually means, you know, having different brains, having no one else monopoly on great ideas, having, uh, attracting different types of people with different experiences and backgrounds.

I mean, I think the diversity on the boardroom will be really shaken up when we have socioeconomic diversity, you know, because people, men, women, black, white, people being very similarly educated are probably going to think more alike than people who come from very different backgrounds. So I think boards should be making sure that they have the right policies to encourage people to work.

In all sorts of ways. And obviously I work most of my roles in the city and the finance sector where there's been quite a reversal of the working from home regime. A lot of companies are struggling to enforce it. I have had conversations very recently and they've said, you know, it's supposed to be three days.

It's like 40 percent of people do that. You know, it's just very hard to enforce it because there's still the best talent. But I don't, I think the boardroom should get more involved in this and I think it would change things because at the moment I worry it's all becomes a bit tick [00:40:00] boxy and people say, oh you know we can't afford this, can't afford that and they forget that actually might be a really good investment if you've got a great, I mean Aviva introduced this policy as I say 2017, now men on average take an average of five months paternity leave and it's paid and it's, that's just absolute revolutionary really, um.

And 12 other firms in the investment industry, which is where the diversity project focuses on, um, have done the same. No one has reported anything adverse from this. Um, and it's given people, one of the unforeseen consequences is given people, um, job development or career development opportunities, because sometimes instead of getting cover, if someone's out for four months, say they say, Oh, could you help out on that desk?

And it might be a desk that's going places, their desk might be sort of struggling a bit in terms of work. And that person likes what they do and ends up staying there even when the person comes back. And so everybody's, it's been a win win really. And yes, they did [00:41:00] improve retention and didn't lose people when there was obviously a lot of resignations over the pandemic and after that.

So I think boards, um, in the moment we've got regulations likely to come from both the FCA and the PRA. Everyone's giving them a little shorthand of DEI regs, which is not going to make them land well, because they're all going, you know, it's going to be asking for a rolling of I's moment. But actually what we're talking about is great conduct, you know, good conduct, not having sexual harassment.

I think that should be a given really, but it's sadly not. And making sure that if something goes wrong, the board is up to speed with it. And we saw with Alison Rose and Matt West and Coots last year, different kind of example. But sometimes things go badly wrong and the board or the chief executive doesn't know about it.

I think we'd just make so much more progress if boards said actually we want to know. I mean, what is our policy there? Statutory paternity leave, as you say, is two weeks. And, I mean, I think I saw a survey the other day saying, you know, 14%, 1 in 4 of men felt they felt mentally, physically and emotionally ready to go back to work after [00:42:00] that.

Um, you know, it's just not, it's, it's just not compatible with the kind of culture that you presumably want to have and, uh, Teamwork and enjoyment. And ultimately I do get it with small companies. I think that is a big challenge because in a person's career, taking a few months off when they have a child, unless they're going on to have as many as me, but it's neither here nor there.

If it's going to work 50 years, but if they're only staying a short time at a company and it's a small company, I really get that. And I think we need to do some work on that and how the government can help the share parental leave obviously didn't have a financial component. So it doesn't make any financial sense for.

So, um, I, I think we can do more and I think it's important that we do more and that perhaps there needs to be a government role in reestablishing the value of the family. Big, big, big controversial topic, although it seems strange to say that it is, but you know, very little has been done about that in recent years.

Um, and I think, and obviously you still get pregnancy discrimination, you still get [00:43:00] all sorts of, you know, not so wonderful things happening when people are having, what is. still these days the majority of people have children. Um, so it needs to be kind of, you know, as they say, normalized really and boards need to know.

I think it's a great question to ask board directors, you know, do you know what our policy is? 

Oliver Cummings: There is a growing number of people who are deciding not to have children. One of the things I've sometimes wrestled with with a finite resource base is How does one allocate that resource fairly? And if you have members of your team who are, um, you know, taking parental leave, effectively you are paying them an increase on a sort of per hour, per day basis than you are to those who are not doing that.

And I sort of wrestle with, gosh, how do I justify that? You know, to myself and to others in the team who either can't or choose not to have children. 

Baroness Morrissey: It may not be great for cost control, but there are other ways that you could say [00:44:00] people could have a volunteering allowance, they could have a allowance of days to do something that they want to do, like the passion project idea that Google did many years ago, I don't know if they still do that, where people had a day, um, it's probably gone a long time ago now, but, I do think there are, there are often, when I was at Newton as a CEO, um, in 2001 we had a bit of a perfect storm and I was under pressure to make redundancies and instead I asked for volunteers for a four day week.

I thought it was going to be all parents that would come forward but it was not actually and quite a lot of people came forward who had a hobby, they wanted to have a different work life balance. This was for a six month period and then it was six months. It's, uh, the option of the person taking it, whether they came back full time or not.

And we would prorate their salary, but they'd still be entitled to holiday and pension as normal. So they weren't loo there was, it was a win from them, from a financial point of view. But, but as many men as women came forward to do it, in absolute numbers, uh, several powerful men, including fund managers, stayed on that four day week, like indefinitely.

So [00:45:00] 15 years later, when I left Newton, there was a guy who was like running the most money and he worked a four day week. And, it kind of meant, it took away from this being just a parent thing, you know? Uh, it meant that when somebody said, Oh, I want to work four days when they came back after having a baby, people would go, Oh, it's a mummy track.

They just, they, it was compatible with promotion, it was compatible with doing great work for the company, it was compatible with your career development. And it wasn't seen as kind of like, a dead end thing. So that's one way it's, it would mean that you'd have, be paying everybody more. That's the only trouble.

Honestly, you might not like my idea on that one. But there's other things. You can say to people, look, I'm not expecting you just to pick up the slack. And, you know, what would you like to do? Is there something that you would particularly want to take a six weeks sabbatical or something? I mean, again, complicated for you, but a way around what might seem unfair.

Oliver Cummings: Hello, time has flown by. Goodness, it has. Which means it's time for the lightning round where I'm going to say a short statement and ask you for a quick response if you're ready. I [00:46:00] am. Boardroom behaviour that irritates you most? Patronising behaviour. Most valuable board ritual? It's the prep before the 

Baroness Morrissey: meetings.

Oliver Cummings: Favourite quote and why? I 

Baroness Morrissey: don't know. I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something, and I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do. Edward Everett Hale, who is an American, uh, minister, historian, um, and author, and it's my motto for, or my mantra, for when I feel overwhelmed, but I know I can make a difference.

Oliver Cummings: Most significant professional insight. 

Baroness Morrissey: There are a lot of problems for which there are no obvious solutions, but together, as you have seen us, uh, create answers where there is nothing. If you get the right formula, 30 percent club was like that, you got the right formula, you got the right formula. A problem you could never solve, suddenly it's solved. 

Oliver Cummings: What have you changed your mind on about boards over time? 

Baroness Morrissey: I suppose I thought if you assembled 10 or 12 brilliant people, you'd get a brilliant board.

Uh, definitely, it's a bit like a football team, it's definitely the [00:47:00] teamwork that is the critical thing, and it's definitely having that mix of characters, um, mix of skills, mix of experiences, and um, yeah, I have, I have learned that sometimes the hard way, you know, you know, it's not necessarily the people best on paper that are best in the boardroom.

Oliver Cummings: What are you invested in 

Baroness Morrissey: and why? 

Oliver Cummings: Um, 

Baroness Morrissey: yeah, 

Oliver Cummings: definitely. 

Baroness Morrissey: So quite a bit of different things, uh, property, um, a bit of private equity, some, uh, obviously stocks and shares. I have very, you know, I'm a former fund manager, so I have a very diversified portfolio. Um, I think it's very easy to get very negative about all growth prospects, but I think there's some brilliant companies out there and finding a manager, I'm not a great passive investor.

I think it's, I prefer to pay for a bit of, you know, for active management and I agree with. So yes, but don't put all your eggs in one basket. 

Oliver Cummings: Finally, three things that our listeners should take away from this podcast if they take nothing else away. 

Baroness Morrissey: So, I'll go back to my quote, uh, You're only one, but you are one. And say the regrets I have on my board career have been when I haven't pushed, [00:48:00] uh, a topic where I was in the minority of one, but had a valuable point.

Uh, secondly, um, I do think we've got some work to go on true diversity of thought, and please don't be complacent about the fact that you might have a boardroom that looks, feels very different from maybe 10 years ago. Um, have you actually got the thinking coming out? Are you going behind the scenes and eliciting the views?

So I'd love people to take that away. Um, and thirdly, I guess, you know, I think it's really important that boards get into the people side of their businesses. And there's such a cliche. We talk about The assets going up and down the lift or working at home these days. Please do don't just delegate that to management.

Please try to understand, you know, the, the culture, try to understand the potential for poor behaviors, try to understand whether people that you think you might mean brilliant women. Who come and present and they're feeling miserable and undervalued and struggling with, you know, motherhood or whatever the problem might be.

It might be a male carer or if it's dad, you know, that, so there's all sorts of stuff going [00:49:00] on in people's lives. The boards often feel like, oh, you're far too removed, but it's, it's the real lifeblood of the company. 

Oliver Cummings: Helena, thank you so much for sharing your amazing experience and wisdom and the incredible honesty that you've done that with.

I really, really appreciate it. 

Baroness Morrissey: It's a pleasure, Ollie. Thank you for having me on.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Baroness Morrissey on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube.

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