Nov 7, 2023 Nurole logo
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From seed to public: the board’s role in two entrepreneurial success stories, with Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia (Snoop Founder & former Chair, Virgin Money former CEO, HMRC lead non-exec)

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Dame Jayne-Anne on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia has worked with boards from most angles, across every business stage. Tune in to her discussion with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings as she reflects on her journeys with Snoop and Virgin Money, and hear her answers to:

  • How have you thought about fundraising for Snoop? (1:29)
  • When and why did you first create a board? (6:01)
  • How did your investor directors add value? (7:59)
  • Were the boards more than just rubber ducks? (10:35)
  • How have the best boards and Chairs provided you with support? (13:06)
  • How do you think about getting the best out of your Chairs as a CEO or Founder? (18:23)
  • Who sets strategy - the Board or CEO? (22:53)
  • Are there downsides to customer-driven strategy? (26:03)
  • Practically, how have you engaged with your boards over strategy? (27:47)
  • What was your experience of chairing the company you founded? (31:44)
  • How do you think about board composition at different business stages? (34:55)
  • How did you think about board size at different business stages? (37:57)
  • What mix of execs and non-execs has worked best for you? (40:17) And
  • ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡(43:13)   

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

Oliver Cummings: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of Enter the Boardroom with Nurole the business podcast that brings the boardroom to you I'm your host Oliver Cummings CEO of new role The board search specialist and market leader bringing science to the art of board hiring.

Today's guest, Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, is lead non-executive director at HMRC, senior independent director at Tate, chair of Moneyfarm, and an advisor to Vanquish Banking Group. Unicredit and the FinTech Growth Fund. She was founder and chair at Snoop, a FinTech company acquired by Vanquish and Virgin One, another FinTech acquired by RBS.

Jayne-Anne was formerly CEO of Virgin Money for 10 years and she is the author of The Virgin Banker, a book that explores her journey in the financial sector, particularly her experiences with Virgin Money. Jayne-Anne, a huge welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Thanks very much for having me, Ollie.

Oliver Cummings: What I love About your background is that you've got this amazing range of experience [00:01:00] across both early stage businesses, as well as later stage businesses. And I'm really interested to see how you sort of pull those different experiences together. 

I'd like to start with the topic of fundraising because obviously having come from a banking background, I imagine that was a strength. But on Snoop's early stages, you've reflected that "setting up Snoop with my own money was financially much more challenging than I might have liked". And you subsequently undertook market led investment rounds. Tell me a bit more about that. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Well, let's talk about fundraising overall, I think, because if I think about my career, I started off as an accountant, I went into a large organization, then called Norwich Union, now Aviva, set up Virgin Money, didn't have to do the fundraising for that, ran it, We then acquired Northern Rock and listed the business, but along the way, I had to do quite a lot of fundraising to sustain Virgin Money, to develop new products.

And actually [00:02:00] when we were looking to buy Northern Rock to bring in people that obviously would support us in doing that. And of course, once we listed the business, going out to talk to investors about how they thought about the business was something that was high on my agenda. And what I learned from that experience, which I subsequently had to take into Snoop, I think.

However, deeply involved you are in any individual business. As a CEO or a founder, it's your life, isn't it? Other people see it differently. And I found that particularly at Virgin money, you know, I'd done it for years and years and years. And then I'd go out on the road and talk to potential investors and they would ask me questions that came from completely different angles from the ones that I'd thought of.

And I found that really challenging in a positive way. I loved it. I love the fact that I could then leave the room and think about my business differently. Not everybody loved it. You know, there's definitely found in my finance team sometimes, for example, that there's a bit of a view of, well, if we look at it this way, surely everybody should look at it this [00:03:00] way.

And I found exactly the same with raising money for Snoop, that actually if you go out and tell your story from your perspective of course it will appeal to a number of people, but actually more people will see it differently. So when we were raising money for Snoop it was really interesting that when we first went out there, we were talking about setting up something that would compete in banking and would be based on open banking capability.

A new regulatory environment effectively. And some people were really interested in that. Some investors are really interested in that. Some people weren't really bothered about it. They were much more bothered in how we could compete with the money supermarket, for example, and some of the other similar cost comparison websites.

 So my point really is that fundraising should provoke us all to think about the business from multiple angles. And often the people that come to invest are people that think very differently to how you might imagine. And so I started off talking about when I first [00:04:00] got involved with this, when Virgin Money was looking to acquire Northern Rock during the financial crisis.

And we put together a really interesting investment capability. One of those potential investors was a big American investor called Wilbur Ross. He ran his own PE business. And of course, during the financial crisis, Northern Rock was actually just the first indicator of what was going wrong.

And so the UK government nationalized the business to start with, all of the investors fell away. And I was left with thinking about what to do next with Virgin Money because at that point we couldn't buy Northern Rock. And I think one of the most difficult things I ever did was to raise 50 million pounds to acquire a small bank in the middle of the financial crisis.

And having raised that money and bought a small bank, One night I was sat at home and my phone rang and it was Wilbur Ross on the phone, I hadn't spoken to him for two or three years and he said Joan Ann, I've been watching what you've done. I'm well done [00:05:00] for buying that little bank. I've decided I want to invest a hundred million dollars in your business. Tell me what you want to do with it. 

And so. I often say to people, always remember you're being watched. Some people are watching your journey and sometimes it can turn out like that, which of course is an amazing, it's never happened to me since. But I think it's amazing to know that people are watching what you're doing and are prepared to invest based on that experience as well.

Oliver Cummings: I love that. Funny enough, I had a bit of that experience at a much smaller level the other day when one of our podcasts was released with not such great audio quality. And I instantly had a bunch of messages in my WhatsApp from various CEOs saying, by the way, the audio quality on that was terrible.

And there was a part of me initially where it was devastated. And then I thought, that's amazing. I can't believe they're all listening to this. This is so exciting. So just going back to the Snoop experience, did you, when did you first create. A board. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Well, it grew from the initial investors, to be honest. I led the [00:06:00] sale of Virgin Money to the Clydesdale bank, which was back in 2018. And what happened there was that the Clydesdale had their own digital banking business, whereas Virgin Money was building its own. And so when the Clydesdale took over , as these things happen with mergers and acquisitions, it was decided that my Virgin Money team, if you like, my Virgin Money digital team would be made redundant.

And a number of the people from that team came to see me and said, Of course, we've done all of this work. Let's set up our own digital bank. And we concluded, frankly, it would be far too difficult to raise the capital for another digital bank at that point. You know, you need 50 million euros or 50 million pounds, I think, to get your regulatory position right anyway.

And so we decided that we would launch Snoop into open banking. And I started that business myself. We didn't have a board at that point. I think my husband and I were directors. And then as we brought in shareholders, and we brought in initially, somebody that I'd worked with over the [00:07:00] years, and then we started to set up the board by bringing those shareholders in.

And as other shareholders joined us, the significant ones joined the board too. And so for the Four years of Snoop's existence we had a very, I mean, you'd recognize the board. It was constructed in the way of normal corporate governance, if you like, but the directors were the main shareholders of the business.

Oliver Cummings: Interesting. And how did that work for you? Because I will often hear from founders who find it very difficult managing their investor directors. And when they first start to bring in independent directors, they suddenly breathe a sigh of relief and suddenly realize what a board can be, rather than this necessary evil where they get, beaten over the head with a stick for the best part of three hours. How was it for you? 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: With Snoop, because we had experienced people that were investing their own money and involved directly, I can honestly say that it was entirely, we had [00:08:00] board meetings six times a year and they were entirely constructive, helpful and positive. 

Oliver Cummings: Are there specific instances where you can think back, well, actually they enabled X, Y, and Z or why were you better off for having them there than not?

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: The very fact and construct of a board instills on an organization and certainly it's Executive leadership, a certain discipline, which I've always found positive. So you kindly mentioned the Virgin one account, which was one of the businesses that I ran for the Virgin group. 

We partnered with RBS for a number of years and RBS implemented normal corporate controls around the Virgin one account, as you would imagine, even though it was very much an entrepreneurial business.

And I remember people saying to me, gosh, don't you find that overkill as you're trying to grow a small business? And I genuinely remember saying, well, I don't really, because without that, we might not have the discipline to really dig into all of the key issues every [00:09:00] month and really be prepared to present what's happening.

 I like the discipline and structure that comes with a good, strong board setup. And then I think like everything in life, it comes down to the individuals that you have on that board. And so, without a doubt, I'm sure you want to come on to chairmanship, but without a doubt, I think the role of the chair is absolutely critical.

 Where I've had the most effective boards, I've had the most effective relationship with excellent chairs. And where I've had the least effective boards, I've had the least effective chairs. 

 When I look back to the individual contribution that successful chairs have made, I would say that there are people whose experience is relevant and who I feel I can learn from. People who are able to really understand the business without interfering in that business in too detailed a way. And people who are really supportive of the executive team but challenging at the same time. And I do think that if you can get those complex balances right, then you can have a really effective board. 

Oliver Cummings: That [00:10:00] resonates with me a lot. It's almost like the discipline of writing an essay. The value is not the essay itself, but actually the being forced to consolidate your thinking , is where the learning and the insight happens.

So that completely resonates for me for a board. But is that the only... Kind of area where there are other sort of more tangible values. Because in a sense, if that's the only value, you could have some rubber ducks. You know, a little bit like, you know, the engineers do where you sort of talk to your rubber duck sitting on your desk and talk through the problems.

And actually it gets out 90 percent of the stuff that you'd get from talking to someone else, but it's always there and available for you. I mean were the board more than just rubber ducks? 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Yes, and this is in a sense why I come back to it being about the people rather than the fact that it's a board, if you see what I mean, or just the fact that it's a board.

So I think it's the experience of the individuals that are on the board and their maturity and being able to communicate that experience that makes all of the difference. So I remember, for example, in Snoop, as [00:11:00] you start off and everybody's thinking, "where's this going to go," and there's the inevitable ups and downs.

One of my shareholders. And it was Lloyd, Sir Lloyd Dorfman, who set up Travelex and has been a huge supporter. And I always remember him saying, "look, never forget in an entrepreneurial world, the line does not go in a straight line from bottom left to top right." And I know that sounds a simple thing to have said, but actually just those sort of interventions, I think are really helpful for people and the sort of thing that certainly my team has picked up on subsequently, to say, look, we shouldn't get thrown off course because this is the way that business is.

So I think that that's very good entrepreneurially. I remember in the very early days of Virgin when Richard Branson was still himself involved with boards. It didn't last very long in my experience. This is back in 1994, but when we set up what was then Virgin Direct, Richard was actually on the board.

And the only thing that he wanted, the two things he wanted to talk about and focus on, and that was [00:12:00] customer service and price. You know, and it was about how do we bring down price, not how do we put up price. It was all about really focusing on the customer. And I would say that that's what I mean by a strategy.

What are the key things that people that you respect and who are more than influential, you know, the owners of the business, what is it that they think is really important? And how can you then get the executive team to really focus on that? And undoubtedly that was you know, very, very valuable.

With the start off of a virgin, 

Oliver Cummings: I love that insight on Lloyd Dorfman. And I guess that comes from someone who's been an entrepreneur themselves, who knows how stressful that experience can be and how valuable that reassurance from someone who's been there can be that I think lots of boards forget they spend far too much time on the challenge side of things and not enough time on the support and failing to recognize how valuable that is to you as a CEO, when you're having your own doubts about if you're heading in the right 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: direction. 

Absolutely. [00:13:00] And you know I've had a number of chairmen through my career so far, and the two that stand out are Sir Brian Pittman and Glenn Marino.

And Sir Brian Pittman, for those that don't know him, was this very successful CEO of Lloyds Bank, and then when he could do those things, became chair of Lloyds Bank after he stepped down. And Glenn Marino was, when I met him, certainly he was the chair of Pearson Group, and he's chair of one of the Fidelity businesses, now back in America.

Sir Brian, unfortunately, is no longer with us. And... So Brian, what Brian Pittman did for me was truly amazing. He arrived in my life as Virgin Money was looking to acquire Northern Rock out of the financial crisis and our bankers at the time said, this is a bit of a David and Goliath moment, you know, little old Virgin Money trying to sort out a huge financial crisis point.

You need someone to help and let's introduce you to Brian Pittman. And I remember going to be introduced to Sir Brian and he told me afterwards that he had no intention of getting involved and then met me and thought, good as me, she needs some [00:14:00] help. So I was very, very fortunate that he sort of took me under his wing.

 And what happened was that During the financial crisis, all of the politicians, regulators, Bank of England, et cetera, wanted to talk to Brian about some of his prior experiences. And he'd say, well, I'll come to your meeting as long as I can bring Jane Anne with me. And he would always take me to these key sessions and, emphasize my role.

He would never be the front person. He would say, well, I think you need to ask Jane Anne about that. And it gave me confidence. It introduced me to people that I never thought I'd meet. It made me realize that how can I put it? I always used to assume that there were people that were much brighter, much cleverer and much more able than me.

And actually we were all muddling along together and you know, to get to get to a good outcome. And one of the other things he did is he would always walk around London. He'd never take any sort of transport. So we'd set off [00:15:00] walking for hours and he'd always tell me. stories about his life and his career that have always stuck with me. 

And I think that's important in terms of sharing experience. And then sadly, literally on the day that he died, we had a board meeting the previous day, and He spoke to me afterwards, and he said banking can be really complicated, but there are really only three things you need to know if you're running a bank, and they are, and it's sort of obvious really, but he said they are do you understand the capital stack, and is it secure?

Are you really clear on how much liquidity have you got, and is it enough? And do the board understand the interest rate risk in the banking book? Because if they don't, it could really go pear shaped and nobody would understand it. And Joan, and everybody will tell you that running a bank is much more complicated than that, and boards will get involved with all sorts of difficult detail, but those are the only three things you really need to know.

And I've always thought, goodness me, you know, being able to...[00:16:00] Consolidate, if that's the right word, your key points so that as a board and as an executive, you're really clear on the really important things, really, really important. He was also, do you remember during the financial crisis, there was something called what were they called?

Complex derivative instruments or something, I can't remember what they were called now. That everybody got in trouble with. And they were called, I can't remember that, they were called CDOs anyway. And I remember Brian saying... Collateralized Debt Obligations. Oh, that's right, that's what they were.

Collateralized, what? Debt Obligations. That's the one, thank you very much, Ollie. And he said of course the reason, the problem with the financial crisis, the reason for the financial crisis, is that no CEO knows what a CDO is, as I've just proven. And... You know, if you are going to run a business, you need to understand it and it's just those sort of simple things that he said that were brilliant for me.

Whereas Glenn, his contribution wasn't so much about that sort of [00:17:00] content. It was that he was the Genuine supporter of the executive and he would challenge us, he would challenge me outside the board and he would be ring midnight and say, you know what you're doing about this. Have you heard that?

What did you do that for? But in the board and in front of my team and the business, he would be my number one supporter, and then he would spend a lot of time going out and about throughout the business different different buildings that we had and different branches that we had.

And he would just go and tell people what good job they were doing. And it might sound a little bit facile, but goodness me, it motivated people. And that's why I would say those the two best chairs that I'd ever had: one that's really sharing his experience and the other that's a great cheerleader.

Oliver Cummings: I love that spine tingling, that distillation of wisdom and experience .Although I suspect you're under playing your role In that because [00:18:00] I often speak with a lot of CEOs who approach the role the relationship with the chair, assuming that it's antagonistic, that this is the person whose job it is to a fire them if they're underperforming.

And I'm imagining there must be something that. What do you do in the way that you approach chairs that has engaged and excited such talented chairs as the ones that you've worked with? That's not coincidence. Is there anything that you have when you think about working with a chair that you have as a sort of mental model of how to interact with them as a CEO or founder?

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Well, first of all, thank you for the positive feedback. I have had chairs that haven't worked as well, so I can't be quite as open about them, obviously, but I should think about my own role in that. I think the good and the bad thing about me is that I'm completely transparent. So I will just say things as they are.[00:19:00] And I don't do that -How can I put it?

That's just the way I am. People have often said to me, you need to be more sophisticated in your communication. I always intend to be. And then in the end, I'm just like, well, look, let me just tell you, this is how it is. And I think that some people respond to that. And I think Glenn and Brian did much better than others.

I think about two other chairs who clearly I won't name. I remember one person coming in and we went to a lunch together and this person absolutely dominated the lunch. And I thought, "Oh God, this is going to be really difficult" because if we're in the same room together, and I can't get a word in edgeways, that's going to be really hard.

 I remember saying, " goodness me, it's really difficult because you've come in and acted as if you're the boss". And the reply was, "well, I am the boss." And in a sense, that's true. But that wasn't the way to motivate me, if you see what I mean, and so that was a difficult one.

And then I remember another one where the chair used to literally shout at me really loudly. [00:20:00] And on this particular occasion that I'm remembering, we had offices in London, very small offices in London, and the chair had a room there. And somebody else, who was quite a well known figure in the city and had been involved in one of our charitable businesses, happened to be sat next door after this particular board meeting when I was being shouted at by the chair very loudly.

And the other person afterwards took me outside and said that cannot go on. The trouble is the whole organization knows that that's happening and it's belittling both of you. And so it was this external person actually that made us realize this isn't the right chair. 

Oliver Cummings: Really interesting listening to you talking about the way you interact. It sounds in the examples you gave with Brian and Glenn, you're going for walks, you're on the floor the organization, whereas those other two, for instance, is a way of, you know, in, in enclosed spaces.

Was that a feature of those of your best chairs that [00:21:00] actually they, they got you offsite and thinking big picture by taking you for things like walks, just as a very practical example of how they foster that relationship with our other things like that, that they did. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: I hadn't thought about it like that, but as you put it like that, I think that's exactly right.

I definitely had with both of them a much closer personal relationship than with the other two. I remember when one of the close relationships, you know, somebody that one of them wasn't very well on one occasion, and rang me in the middle of the night and said, "I thought I ought to tell you I'm not feeling terribly well."

So just in case there's a problem tomorrow, just I was losing sleep thinking I hadn't told you about it. He turned out to be absolutely fine at the time, which was great. But I did think at the time that's somehow the sign of a really good partnership. I don't want you to be surprised in the morning if this is gone wrong.

I definitely respond better to, to alignment between myself and the chair. That doesn't mean to say I don't like being challenged, 'cause as I said at the beginning, you know that [00:22:00] actually the shareholders like most, are the most challenging ones, 'cause they definitely push you to greater performance.

But I think you can be challenged much more effectively by people that you feel warmth and respect for than people that are trying to punch you in the head from time to time. 

Oliver Cummings: Sure. So one of the most difficult things I think as a founder and CEO to do is to effect a strategy pivot.

And at Snoop, your initial strategy centered on helping customers switch energy providers to save money. And then after the energy crisis, you pivoted more towards mortgages, loans and media subscriptions. Really interested to hear about that experience because my guess is that would have been quite a collaborative discussion.

One of the things, topics that often comes up with our mastermind groups and in the community discussions is around who sets strategy. Is it the CEO who sets the [00:23:00] strategy and the board, you know, kick the tires and approve it, or is it the board that sets the strategy and then it's the, for the CEO to execute? So curious to hear how, how that experience was for you. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Well, I think there's a third way, which is, I think it's right to say with Snoop that the customer set the strategy. And the reason that I say that is I remember us all both as an executive team and as a board, talking at the very beginning of Snoop about what we are.

Because we didn't really fit into any natural segment, if you see what I mean. Through open banking, people could aggregate their bank accounts. I'm talking about this in the past tense, you can still use it. So people can aggregate their bank accounts. And then through deep learning, basically, we're able to personalize suggestions as to how customers might spend their money better, including how they might switch to better deals.

And so we weren't sure where we were we a money supermarket, if you like? Were we a comparison website? Were we [00:24:00] a some form of financial institution? Were we providing financial management? What exactly were we? And it was customers that said that through their behavior said, "the thing we want Snoop to be is a financial management tool."

And we hadn't even thought about setting off life as a financial management tool. So you're right, we started off thinking that we would be a switching service, a really good switching service. And we had to move that switching focus because of the energy crisis, as you rightly say, Ollie from energy to other products, including financial services.

But actually the thing that customers engaged in most profoundly was financial management in particular. Every Sunday afternoon, we send customers our analysis of what their spending profile looks like for the next week. And customers love it. Partly because of the aggregation -it's hard to look at your total financial situation because of disaggregated accounts.

But partly because understandably a lot of people, frankly, can't be bothered to really do that themselves. And so having it [00:25:00] on a plate is something that appealed to people. And so as a board we were able to follow the customer, and I think that that's been a very powerful thing for Snoop.

Just going back to where Richard Branson started off when we were in financial services, I think that's exactly what he was saying. "Are you really putting the customer first?" And I think businesses that do that are always likely to win. I've been on boards of businesses where the customer's never mentioned at the board. And I think that they're the worst for it. 

Oliver Cummings: Interesting. Were there ever downsides to that approach at the board meeting? I find one of the questions that will often come up is what's the strategy, you know, more clarity around, around the strategy. And if the answer is, well, we're going to follow the customer, that'll often make some people in my experience feel quite uncomfortable.

Because you've got a, you might not know exactly what the customer wants. And there's that whole Henry Ford, "if I'd asked the customer what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: I agree with that too. And when we set up the Virgin one account, funnily enough, we had exactly [00:26:00] that debate and there was a similar point made from First Direct that if you asked, when First Direct started, I think they were the first telephone bank. When they originally asked their customers if they wanted to bank on the telephone or not, customers were horrified at the very thought. So I do agree with that.

I think that what I'm really saying as an entrepreneur, I suppose, is you can have an initial idea, but you have to be prepared to flex to get to the right place with your customer on it.

And I think at that point, at the beginning of an entrepreneurial journey, the board is about how do you maximize customer satisfaction. How do you make sure your product's right? How's your service? Great. Because if you haven't got customers, you've got nothing.

 Where I think you're leading me though, is as businesses get much bigger. And as I said, I've been on the boards of big businesses that don't spend any time talking about the customer because they're talking about, you know, "what's our strategy to grow through inorganic growth?" for example, or, "how are we going to manage this particular regulatory issue?"

But I do think that starting off in an entrepreneurial [00:27:00] business, if you don't get the customer at the heart of everything, then you've got nothing really, have you? That's what business is about, isn't it? Satisfying the customer, really. And if you can't do that, then perhaps your business doesn't succeed.

Oliver Cummings: Yeah, I suppose, my experience, sometimes that's led down dead ends. One of my favorite sort of case studies was, I think it was at Blockbuster, who had some customers who would basically come in, take the videos out, go home, bring them back in and say they didn't work, they'd get put on the discount shelf.

And then the same customer would come in and take those discounted shells and basically have secured themselves a 50 percent discount to the video that they wanted to buy. And they figured out that these were loss making customers and effectively that there is a such thing as a bad customer. And what I'll sometimes hear people saying is, well, you know, they'll be looking at the customer data and saying, well, those aren't the right sort of customers we want to be following.

I'm, I'm interested in that. Strategic discussion though, and practically how [00:28:00] you went about getting the most value out of your boards. I've seen and spoken with a number of CEOs who sometimes struggle with that dynamic that, " a horse is designed by committee". And if they don't take the right questions and the right framework around strategic discussions to the board, it ends up in a mess.

And that ranges from some who like to take, you know, "here are five options". And this is the one I recommend to others who would just take one option and say, " this is what I think we should do". And then allow that to be changed. How practically do you, have you found it's been most effective to operate with your boards?

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Two things that come immediately to mind. The first is that for big discussions and like you're describing, I've always found it helpful to have a facilitator. I think people behave better when there's a stranger in the room, if you know what I mean.

It becomes a little bit more formal and people don't quite get down to the[00:29:00] throwing away certain comments and- 

Oliver Cummings: Familiarity breeds contempt. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: -Yeah, I think so. And so we found some really good facilitators that have really helped over the years, I think, with my boards to get us to a good outcome.

And I think a good outcome is definitely not I win, you lose. It's a win win outcome, isn't it, where the executive feel that this has been a strategic plan that's been tested and well considered by the board. And because of the debate, it's been changed and it's become even better. And I've definitely seen that work.

And then the other thing - I used to think it was just a sort of a city extravagance, and then having been to boards where this doesn't happen, I now think it's important- and that is to definitely have a board dinner before the meetings. And there's just something, isn't there, about getting everybody together in a nice environment where you can have some personal conversations and a few laughs and a glass of wine.

And talk about the key things that are going to come up tomorrow. And I just think [00:30:00] then the next day, everybody's a little bit in the right mindset, in the right friend set, if you know what I mean, right constructive way to go forwards and over the year. I did that at Virgin Money, and that was always really helpful.

But over the years since, a number of my boards don't do that. And I do think that, as a consequence, they're a little bit too rigid when they actually happen. So I'm not suggesting that every time you always have a board dinner, but two or three times a year, I think, to help people to engage on that different and more human level, I've always seen as really helpful, particularly around the annual strategic cycle.

Oliver Cummings: Definitely. One of my favorite past podcasts was one with Owen Eastwood, who's a performance coach, where he talked about the importance of creating a sense of belonging and creating that psychological safety. And people know about that in the executive teams. And somehow when it comes to the board, they think, "Oh, well, everyone's, you know, the experience, they don't need that."

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: I think probably particularly as a board director because you don't have that [00:31:00] same sense of belonging on a day to day basis, do you? So you need to make that transition into the team before a really good board meeting starts. 

Oliver Cummings: So you also had a really interesting role where you were chair for a period of time with Snoop. And that's one I, again, I often hear founders wrestling with. Should I be the chair of the board that I founded? Does that work? What was your experience? What worked well? What could have been better?

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: The reason that I became chair was so that the excellent team, if you like, could all lift up. If you're with me, so it was more at least as much to do with finding a good CEO from the team and giving that team much more space than if I was in running the business day to day on a CEO basis. So I think it came from there rather than me thinking, or anybody thinking you should be chair.

What I was trying to do at that point was as a. hands on operational chief executive, and I always [00:32:00] felt I had to be hands on partly because of the sort of personality I am, partly because it's a bank, and certainly because it's Virgin. I always remember Richard Branson saying to me, you know, I'll support you in buying Northern Rock, but do not screw it up because it's one thing for another Virgin company to go bust if it's a, I don't know, cosmetics company or something. It won't affect the rest of the brand. 

But if a bank goes bust, then that's extremely bad news. And so I was always really focused on, "I've got to get this thing right," if you see what I mean. And so one of the things I've had to really work at since moving from executive to a non executive role is what's the right level of intervention?

How do you allow a team to grow and flourish? I think you have to be clear that you can make the cut, by which I mean, there's no point in saying I'm not going to be executive anymore or not going to act as a CEO anymore and then actually be all over the team and demanding everything. So I have definitely with Snoop over emphasized that.

 Part of the way in which I did it, and [00:33:00] again I find that quite difficult, was literally to limit my time, so I would do a couple of hours a day on Snoop. Whereas obviously that would be massively different if I were CEO. Massively different. And I would be really clear on what I was going to engage with.

Having been a CEO and partly because of the personality that I've been, I've been the sort of person who is definitely seen as the leader. Whether that's culturally or in front of the markets or in the press, for example.

And I very much consciously took myself away from that in Snoop. I wasn't the person that was leading the press. I wasn't the person that was standing up in front of the staff talking about the business. I wasn't the person setting the strategy, I was the person that was looking at all of that and just adding some, I hope helpful feedback around the way in which that's constructed.

But I absolutely had to do that very consciously. And you feel a little bit, if I, how [00:34:00] can I explain it? I felt a little bit like I might be if you're climbing up the mountain, I like to know that I'm properly tied on. And I felt a little bit as if I was not quite safe in doing that. It felt a little bit a little bit unstructured, but I think it meant that everybody, as a consequence, everybody else could develop and grow in the executive team.

Oliver Cummings: One of the key roles of the chair is to think about the board composition. And you've been involved with companies at every growth stage. So I'm interested to know how you think about that board composition, and how you think about it at different stages. Is it the same? You're looking for the same archetypes in every board, or you've got a core set of archetypes that you're looking for?

Personally, I always liked the idea of having someone who's what I'd call a CEO whisperer, someone who's been a CEO who can relate to the CEO. Because I have seen boards that don't have that and I think you're really missing something. I really like and value having someone who's a deep end industry expert who can [00:35:00] challenge on a level footing the exec.

But how do you think about what are the critical archetypes for those different stages and how do they vary?

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: I definitely agree that there are horses for courses, if you like, and that boards need to change over time. So if I look at a business that like Virgin Money that goes from privately owned to a larger business to a listed business, absolutely clearly, the evolution of the board and both in terms of its experience and how many people do you have, I think is really important. 

It was something that we thought about a lot. So when we started off in Virgin Money, we had a very small board of really just the people that had put the thought together. And we started to, as we started to evolve the business, it was clear that the business was going to grow.

We brought in new shareholders, the shareholders joined the board. And as that business then became part of RBS, RBS employees join the board. I think that's the [00:36:00] most difficult when you have a big shareholder that sends in what would be senior to mid level managers, if you like, to represent their interests.

They're good people, but they don't have the same passion, in a sense, for growing the business. I think that can be difficult. And then let me see what happened next. So then it's time to sell the business. And so I think when you're thinking about selling the business, it's definitely time to have people that have experience of M& A because it's such a complex process without a doubt.

 Then started to move into Northern Rock territory, really complex. And we didn't know what we didn't know. At that point, you need a really experienced chair, Brian Pittman came in at that point, and people that understand the banking market and understand the market that you're dealing with.

I think you can't be on the board of an organization that's got such technical requirements as a bank or, you know, I'm sure a telco or other businesses and not have, as you say, somebody that's really been there and understood that.

And then obviously when you've got to the point that the business is [00:37:00] listed, then you need market credibility, and you need people that really understand how the corporate governance code works, how listed companies have to operate and can manage committees. And so I think you're right, the evolution from the entrepreneurial startup right the way through to the running of a listed company, particularly a bank, you need all sorts of change along the way.

Oliver Cummings: You touched on size there, which is one, and there's research on this, that it's one of the key hallmarks of a high performing board that, once you get above a certain size, and I don't quite know what that size is, I'd be interested to hear your perspectives, but I suppose it follows that Jeff Bezos two pizza teams type model in my head, once you start having more than about eight people around a table, there's what I would think of as "di-worse-ification". Up to eight, you're getting the benefit of diverse thinking, but beyond that, actually each incremental voice is becoming a distraction.

I think it's different, you know, in my experience, earlier stage boards often [00:38:00] can benefit more from one to one interactions. And maybe the benefit of bringing the board together as a whole is less. Whereas by the time you got a later, more mature organization, and board, actually, it can, it can stomach that, the complexity of bringing eight different perspectives together.

How, how do you think about that trade off between size, expertise, diversification of that group?

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: I before you said Jeff Bezos and eight which I hadn't heard, I was going to say eight. Because I just think this is the right number of people that you can get around the table isn't it you can have a conversation and feel everybody can be engaged.

I've been on boards or seen boards that have had 12 or 15 people, and I just don't think they operate. At that point they're just sort of inspectors really. Everybody has a something to look at, but I don't see how everybody can contribute effectively.

So I'm definitely a fan of smaller rather than larger boards. Smaller, more experienced boards, I think, are most effective. I think that's important for the [00:39:00] executive, too, and the overall team, because let's face it, boards can't operate in a vacuum, and so the executive needs to build relationships with board members too.

And trying to get around that number of people is just very time consuming if you don't... get that done properly. By the way, I do think as well that there's a time for a good company secretary and I think that's a really important role to make sure that a a board operates well and I think that sometimes that can be underestimated but, you know, I saw some really excellent company secretaries that certainly in my time at Virgin and we wouldn't have been able to be as well structured and well documented and well reported without them.

Oliver Cummings: Yeah, interesting. And then in terms of that composition, you said eight people. How do you think of the mix of exec and non exec, and how does that fluctuate over time? One of the interesting bits of research I've seen shows that. Execs [00:40:00] tend not to rate their boards as good or excellent.

Like the vast majority do not rate their boards as good or excellent. Although when you look, dive into the detail, it's the execs other than the CEO who are most negative. Which I suspect reflects a communication gap as much as anything, but I'm curious to know how you think about what's the right mix to use or bring in your three senior execs as part of that eight, or is it just you as a CEO? What's worked best for you and how's that changed again across stages? 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: So I think probably CEO and CFO. Would be my suggestion. Although your comment about how people feel about boards reminds me, I'm sure she wouldn't mind me saying it, that a number of years ago, Alison Britton, super successful and on all sorts of big boards now, right?

Alison Britton took me out for lunch and she said, Because I was only the CEO of Virgin Money at the time. She said, you need to get on a board, an external board. And she said, I can't remember what she was doing at that point. I think she was on the board [00:41:00] of M& S or something. And she said, it's been such an eye opener.

I said, why has it been such an eye opener, Alison? And she said, because you realize that your non executive directors aren't actually idiots. And that has played, that conversation has played back to me so many times, because I think that it's a bit like talking about the shareholders, isn't it? What you realize is that you're, I think it, for the executive, particularly if you're running a listed business, life is quite stressful.

And the last thing you want really is your non, executive directors to be coming in and interfering asking difficult questions and you think oh god they really don't understand I've thought about this 10 times and you know are they stupid that they don't think that you know they haven't realized that this is the answer and of course the point is they're not stupid they are coming to it for the first time and it's a genuine question that they're asking and so I do think that for people that are at certain levels of seniority and coming up towards a certain age, let's call it, you know, in your fifties, [00:42:00] Alison was right, you know, it's really good experience, I think, to be, to have at least one non executive role so that you can really understand that interaction between the exec and the non exec.


Oliver Cummings: that, interestingly, that. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Oh, is there? Well, that'd be interesting to hear. But so to your point, I would minimize the number of executives who have formal board roles because of the time, the amount of time it consumes. And, you know, if you had two and six, two executives and six non executives, I'd say that could be really great.

If it was two and eight, it probably wouldn't be a disaster, but I wouldn't go beyond that. 

Oliver Cummings: Really interesting. Yeah, there's a, there's a nice piece actually, the book, I think it's CEO excellence, which is, shows that the highest performing CEOs all have an independent or mostly have an independent board director role because it helps reframe them.

And actually I went through exactly that journey where I used to sit with my board thinking, are they idiots? Like I've, it's so flipping obvious. Like, [00:43:00] why did they not get this? And then you sit on the other side of the table and you're like, how am I supposed to make a decision? And like with this level of innovation is impossible.

And it really does reframe, I think the way that you think about presenting the information and, and how you get value out of boards. And, and I, you know, I don't think. There's, you can't start too early with that. I often see people only starting to think about it once they're starting to think about retiring.

But in some ways that's too late. I think you want to start while you're still current and as soon as you're able to get something, you know, I would always encourage people to, to, to grab it with two hands and it doesn't matter too much whether it's a paid role or a pro bono role. And I think you can get so much value if it's a good board out of that learning experience.

Absolutely The time has flown by which means it's time to move onto our lightning round where I'm gonna say a statement and ask you for a quick response if you're ready. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Okie dokie. Let's go. 

Oliver Cummings: So first up, the boardroom behavior that irritates you most. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Oh, that's [00:44:00] easy. Being on phones. I cannot bear it when you know, you all sit, right? Everybody sits around the table and you can see people fiddling with their iPhone. I hate it. 

Oliver Cummings: You call them up on it. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Yes. 

Oliver Cummings: Fantastic. There should be a ban. Best book every board member should read and why? 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Well, so I thought about this and I think it's the FT. I don't think that there's any one book that I would say has influenced me, but reading the FT every morning is really important to get a feel for not just what's going on in business, which is important itself, but I think they're really good at helping you to think about issues and culture. And it's something I wouldn't like to start the day without.

Oliver Cummings: Yeah, great life simulator. Your favorite quote and why? 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: That's my dad. Never give up, never give up, never, never, never give up. I think it's probably Churchill, but dad took it on himself to instill that in me. And I just, from time to time as when things get tough, sadly, my dad's not with us anymore.

But when times get really [00:45:00] tough and I just think, oh, gosh, I can't do this, then his voice comes to me and never give up is the thing that comes to mind. Rings in my ears. It's interesting because I've obviously said it so many times to so many friends and colleagues now that they play it back to me as well. And I find it very empowering. 

Oliver Cummings: Love it. Your most significant professional insight. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: My most significant. Oh I say this to my daughter from time to time. Nobody looks after your career like you do. And I remember having that dawning quite a long time ago that, you know, I remember being in, I was in what was then Norwich Union, now Aviva, and sort of waiting to be promoted and couldn't understand why I wasn't being, I'm thinking, "Oh no, actually, perhaps you should do something about it yourself."

And so I often think not just around promotion, but you know, if whatever you want to achieve, don't wait for somebody else to try and identify it for you. You need to be out there and doing it for yourself. 

Oliver Cummings: Yeah, I love that. It's that wonderful sort of [00:46:00] mental trap that you think everyone else is thinking about you, when of course no one ever is.

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Well, it's funny you should say that. There was a brilliant piece written in the Times for Freshers Week at university recently, I don't know if you saw it, and it said one of the lessons I hope that freshers will learn is that everyone's part of their own universe, not a sub, not a, not a big part in yours.

Oliver Cummings: I love that. And last but not least, three things listeners should take away from this podcast if they take nothing else.

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Never, never, never give up. Look after your own career, and get some experience on a board even if you're an exec.

Brilliant. Jayne-Anne, thank you so much for taking the time. That has been a real privilege benefiting from your incredible and varied experience, so really appreciate it. Thank you. 

Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia: Thank you very much, Ollie.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Dame Jayne-Anne on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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