Jun 26, 2024 Nurole logo
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How to sit on a third sector board | Keith Weed

Keith Weed is an exceptional marketer and digital leader. He has championed new ways of integrating sustainability into business and building brands with purpose. Keith was awarded a CBE for services to the advertising and marketing industry in the 2021 New Years Honours List. He has a strong business background, having spent 36 years at Unilever plc, most recently as Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, which included leading the company’s ground breaking sustainability programme globally. Whilst at Unilever, Keith led different companies nationally. He also has strong international experience and knowledge, having run international businesses both from the UK and living overseas. He is currently a Non-Executive Director of WPP plc and Sainsbury’s plc, Trustee Director of Business in the Community, Trustee Director of Leverhulme Trust and President and Board Chair of the Royal Horticultural Society. He is also a trustee of Grange Park Opera.

What boards private and third sector do you currently sit on, and which have you sat on in the past?

I am on the boards of WPP and Sainsbury’s.  I chair their sustainability committees, and at Sainsbury’s I am also on the audit and nominations committees.  Right now, all my other commercial work is advisory.  On the not-for-profit side, I am a Director of the Leverhulme Trust, the RHS (where I am Chair), Business in the Community (BITC) and Grange Park Opera. Additionally, I chair the UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance, which is part of UN Women.

Previously I have been the Vice Chair and a NED for Duchy Originals – King Charles’ organic food business – and I have been on the board of Sun Products in the States.  I was the founder and chair of a charity called Collectively, which was about engaging younger people in sustainability.  I was also the President of the Advertising Association and the History of Advertising Trust, and have held other industry roles like being a Director of the Effies and the Chair of the WEF’s Consumer Industry board.

Reflecting on your time serving on nonprofit boards, what key insights or lessons have you gained, that you have successfully applied to your for-profit roles?

Stakeholder engagement, impact measurement and mission alignment.  Firstly, many for-profit organisations focus mainly on the shareholders.  The shareholders are of course important, but so are your employees, the communities you serve, your suppliers, and your consumers.  More enlightened companies are also starting to focus on broader stakeholder engagement, because if your stakeholders are well served you will be more competitive and then the shareholders will be well rewarded.  Secondly, non-profits do impact measurement well.  At the RHS, we spend a lot of time focusing on measuring our impact.  For-profits need to improve how to measure their environment and societal impact, and I think people like talking about the benefits of this as though it’s part of ‘the good’ – but you should also be measuring the good and bad.  The third area non-profits do well in is mission alignment and values-driven leadership.  Not-for-profits are good at understanding purpose and ethical practices throughout the organisation.  For-profits are not great at understanding that values-driven leadership can be much more engaging and effective in an organisation than simply ‘selling more products’.  

Unilever is the world’s biggest soap company – but Lifebuoy soap in Developing Markets was all about saving lives and getting kids to live beyond the age of five by focusing on basic hygiene, such as washing hands.  Similarly, the health benefits of brushing your teeth twice a day are significantly better than compared to brushing your teeth once a day – but funnily enough, if you brush your teeth twice a day, you use twice as much toothpaste and twice as many toothbrushes.  By focusing on human benefits like improving health or helping people by improving their lives, makes it easier to get out of bed to help save lives rather than to just sell more soap.

Reflecting on your time serving on for-profit boards, what key insights or lessons have you gained that you have successfully applied to your nonprofit roles?

Number one is risk management – around market fluctuation, competition, the regulatory environment, etc.  I became Chair of the RHS just as we entered COVID.  The timing was not ideal, but we were able to batten down the hatches quickly compared to other non-profits.  Within the RHS, there was a feeling of, ‘Keith, are we overreacting?’  I knew from my time in the for-profit sector that acting quickly is the best thing you can do, and we got through COVID ok – without any ‘special help’ – while many other charities did not.  So risk management in the sense of identifying and acting quickly on potential threats is something for-profit businesses do very well.

Financial management, budgeting, forecasting, and good financial discipline are also valuable lessons in the for-profit sector – in the same way that impact measurement is something non-profits do well.  I would also say that the strategic planning and performance management approaches used in for-profits – which include setting clear goals, monitoring performance, and holding people accountable – could be better adopted across the non-profit sector.  There can be a bit of a mindset in charities that, ‘because I’m not being paid as well as I would have in for-profit, I don’t have to work so hard, or I can miss goals and not be held to account.’ That’s a risky culture.  If you only do ‘verbal informal feedback’, then you don’t have a real accountability culture.  Now at the RHS, the CEO gets an appraisal every year, which includes a 360 appraisal, and the board and the Chair get an appraisal as well.  Finally, talent management and succession planning are crucial areas where not-for-profits can learn from for-profits.

Are there any specific practices from for-profit governance that you feel should be more widely adopted across third-sector boards or vice versa?

I find that the governance side is quite similar in some ways, especially in the UK where the Charity Commission has provided clear guidance.  One of the governance challenges facing charities as opposed to for-profits, however, is that board members are unpaid.  I find it hard to get young professionals who are building their careers to give the time for six board meetings and a strategy day – they still have bills to pay and less control over their time.  Consequently, charity boards tend to be populated by individuals in their later years, who are senior enough to manage their own time or are already semi-retired and have both time and money.  That impacts governance because it impacts diversity.

What advice would you give leaders who want to leverage the power of partnership?

When I was at Unilever, I did a lot of work for The Advertising Association, where I was Vice Chair and ultimately became President.  Through that, I led initiatives like improving the sustainability of advertising.  Those are things that you can do at an industry level under the premise that, ‘None of us are as smart as all of us.’  Those types of partnerships are good for the industry but can also help you as a business. For example, at Unilever we realised that (when we changed our standards around representing gender), the more progressive advertising was also more effective – so there was not just a moral case but an economic case too.

I started working with different ad agencies when I realised to really change, we needed to make an industry-wide change and created an initiative called the Unstereotype Alliance.  Unsurprisingly, some of our competitors did not want to join an initiative run by Unilever so we gifted the trademark, the IP, and all the imagery work to UN Women and asked if they would lead this on behalf of the industry.  This was launched in 2017 at Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, where we have all the leaders of large advertising groups, media companies and advertisers together.  We launched the Unstereotype Alliance seven years ago, and now we have quantitative research that shows that advertising has improved both in terms of gender and ethnicity representation over the years.  I have utilised collective partnerships across the various roles I have held to bring people together toward different objectives, and it works well both for engagement and impact.

What is the role of the board in defining and navigating responsible business practices?

Mainstreaming sustainability.  I think Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is poorly executed in the for-profit world.  It can be looked at as, ‘In this part of our business we do good stuff, so the rest of our businesses can get on with the business-as-usual not so good stuff’.  I believe businesses need to make environmental and social sustainability mainstream through the organisation.  At Unilever, I actually shut down the CSR department because I didn’t like this idea that responsibility is only owned by a small piece of the business.  I aimed to make the sustainability mainstream throughout the business, introducing transparency not only in reporting but also in our business practices, even when things were not going well.  We would report externally ‘This is the target we gave ourselves; we’re falling short here – can anyone help us achieve this target?’ And people had some interesting ideas! I didn’t say, ‘we have missed this target and we’re failing.’  I asked for solutions, and through that we found startups that later became key partners both in the UK and in new markets through the Unilever Foundry, which gave up to £50,000 to help startups pilot their work, and then offered more support to help them be able to scale to be able to serve large corporates.  I’m still an angel investor in startups because of that work.

Businesses that work out how to mainstream sustainability now will actually be better positioned in the future (when government regulation and supply chain challenges emerge as a result of climate change).  It is in a business’ interest to future-proof their business.

Beyond the explicit scope of their job description, how can board members contribute to and support their organisations best in for-profit versus non-profit contexts?

In for-profits subject matter expertise is often not leveraged enough.  I think sometimes people join boards focusing on the governance roles.  I chose to join the WPP and Sainsbury’s boards because I understand their value chains.  The biggest branded supplier to Sainsbury’s was Unilever, and the second biggest client for WPP was Unilever, so I can bring subject matter expertise and leverage network connections on these boards.

In the non-profit context, fundraising and resource mobilisation are the most important contributions (through your professional network) It’s also leveraging your professional networks – especially if you can secure pro bono work to help on subject matter expertise, advocacy, and mentorship (in a non-executive way).

When have you gotten it wrong? And what did you learn? 

I have got so much wrong! One of the things I probably get wrong as a non-exec is that I am too impatient.  You need to let the executives set the pace, own the problem and come back with a solution.  At times, I can seem too impatient, but I have learnt and managed to moderate that.  As a chair, you can be more engaged with the CEO, but as a non-exec board member, you have to be sensitive and non-executive.

What advice would you give to someone who’s joining their first board?

First of all, understand your role and responsibilities.  Familiarise yourself with the board’s mandate and bylaws, and be clear about your specific duties.  You can only be good at what you know you need to be good at.

Secondly, be prepared and engaged.  I see some board members who are winging it, and you can tell because they ask the wrong questions.  Come prepared with questions or insights, and actually participate in the discussion.  As a Chair, I encourage everyone to contribute, but a lot of Chairs don’t.

Third, build relationships.  Do a relationship matrix – how important is each relationship, and how good is your relationship with them?  You can make a start by simply just sitting next to them at the next meeting and chatting with them about the weather or the weekend.

Fourth, focus on the big picture and strategy.  You are a board member, not the executive.

Fifth, embrace diversity of thought and style.  That is as important as demographic diversity – and if you want diversity of thought and style, building demographic diversity is the best way to do it.

Finally, stay informed and up to date.  It’s surprising how few people on boards either a) use the products or services b) engage through the eyes of the customer or c) keep themselves up to date with market developments.  I don’t want to be that grey-haired person on the board who talks about how we used to do it ‘in my day’.

Susan Boster (interviewer) is the Founder and CEO of Boster Group Ltd., an award-winning consultancy specialising in the development of innovative partnerships between global corporations, cultural institutions and social impact foundations. Current and recent clients include Disney, Meta, Gap Inc., Moët Hennessy, J.P. Morgan, Bacardi, EY, Goldman Sachs, Montblanc and the Leverhulme Trust.

Previously, as Marketing Director at Barnes & Noble and later CMO at News International, Susan oversaw the transitions of both companies to e-commerce and digital platforms, including the launch of barnesandnoble.com.

Susan currently sits on the boards of the Design Museum - where she chairs the Enterprise Committee - The Representation Project, and the Donmar Warehouse. She previously served two terms as Vice Chairman of the Board of the English National Ballet. Susan is regularly featured as a moderator and keynote speaker at conferences such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and the CognitionX Festival of AI and Emerging Technology, and she is a Consultant Lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

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