Jan 10, 2024 Nurole logo
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Trustee to NED to Chair: creating a board profile, transitioning to paid roles and building a value-driven portfolio career as a NED and Chair, Christmas Special 🎄 with Sarah Flannigan

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

Sarah is Chair of Bionic, Yeo Valley, Riverford Organic Farmers and Sawdays and Senior Advisor at OMERS Private Equity. Tune in to her conversation with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings to hear her answers to:

  • Why did you take on your first board roles whilst you were still a busy non-exec? (1:33)
  • What do you know now which you wish you’d learnt then? (4:17)
  • What was the biggest surprise of the boardroom? (7:09)
  • In what ways did your exec and non-exec roles inform each other? (9:09)
  • Did you consciously decide to leave your exec career and go portfolio? (10:53)
  • How did you think about transitioning from pro bono to paid roles? (12:31)
  • What were the most challenging aspects of the transition? (16:30)
  • Did you have a breakthrough moment or was it just persistence? (19:12)
  • How do your boards compare across different ownership structures? (20:43)
  • What characteristics would you take from each structure to create the dream board? (25:57)
  • What have you learnt about chairing which you wish you’d known before? (27:49)
  • How would you design a perfect Chair role? (30:55)
  • What have been the good and bad interview questions as a prospective Chair? (32:31)
  • How do investor-backed Chairs ensure they are even-handed with CEOs? (35:01)
  • How do you ensure your values shape your portfolio? (37:46)
  • As a Chair, what do you look for in NEDs? (41:00) and
  • ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡(43:12)      

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

Sarah Flannigan


Oliver Cummings: Hello and welcome to another episode of enter the boardroom with Neurol, the business podcast that brings the boardroom to you. I'm your host, Oliver Cummings, CEO of Neurol, the board search specialist and market leader, bringing science to the art of board hiring. 

I wanted to take a moment before we start to say thank you for all the support and positive feedback on the podcast. One recent comment from at Jovir Gill stood out, which highlighted finding a mentor in Enter the Boardroom. If anyone listening is interested in finding a traditional in person mentor, do consider joining the New Role board community, which you can find at community.

newrole. com. That's community. newroll. com. For just 29 pounds a month, we have created a space where you can get matched with a mentor as well as learn, grow your board network and tap into the hive mind of over 60, 000 board members in real time.

[00:01:00] Today's guest, Sarah Flanagan, is chair of Bionic, Yo Valley, Riverford Organic Farmers and Saw Days, and senior advisor at Omer's Private Equity. Formerly, she was a governor at Wells Cathedral School, trustee at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and the Holborn Museum, and non executive director of at IOP Publishing and Inspired Energy PLC, where she chaired the ESG committee. Sarah, a huge welcome, and thanks so much for joining us today.

Sarah Flannigan: Good to see 

Oliver Cummings: you. 

Sarah, there are so many brands that I love there as a consumer. You've built an amazing portfolio, Ned career and subsequently a portfolio chair career. There are so many of our listeners for whom this would be a dream scenario so i'd love to go through with you the various stages that you've experienced between taking on Your first board role to leaving your exact career behind to where you are today.

And then given the breadth of [00:02:00] your current chair experience, I'd be really interested to explore what you've learned about leading as a non exec. 

So maybe if we could start with the pro bono roles whilst you were working. As an exec, you took on your first poured position at Wells Cathedral school back in 2015, while you were still working as CIO at National Trust.

And the following year you became a trustee at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. And for those who are senior execs now thinking about taking on board positions, I'd be really interested to understand what made you decide to take on those first roles whilst you still had a busy exec role. 

Sarah Flannigan: I mean, it wasn't planned at the outset. So in the case of Wales Cathedral School, I was approached by one of the current governors saying please could you come and help? And he was very persuasive and I wanted to help. And, and so I did. So I'm afraid it [00:03:00] wasn't with intent at the beginning.

It happened by accident and I quickly learned that it was a lot of work alongside a busy executive career. And I also learned that it was very fulfilling. And around about the time that I had planned to leave the National Trust, I was approached about the second of those two roles at Kew Gardens as a trustee.

And I had learned at the National Trust how wonderful it is to work somewhere where there's a higher order purpose that an organization exists for, as well as being commercially very vigorous and robust. And I knew that I'd missed that when I left DDF and when I left National Trust and went back into the more normal corporate career that I'd had up until then.

So I thought Q would be a, a wonderful way of keeping in touch with a purpose-led commercial organization where I could serve and play a role. And that role came about again outta the blue. So again, it wasn't with intent. I'd love to say that it was, but it wasn't. I was approached by the cabinet office.

They run a [00:04:00] standard public appointments process, and was asked if I'd like to apply. And I still don't know who or how that happened. But I did some reading and thought this looks wonderful. And I applied, and I went through the usual sort of rigorous process for government appointments and was lucky enough to secure a position. And so that's how it came about. 

Oliver Cummings: Amazing. So, when you think back now to those sort of earliest interactions. What do you wish you knew back then that you know now? 

Sarah Flannigan: Well, I mean, lots of things. They, that was my apprenticeship, those roles. The way in which you start a new executive job, when you've got a brief, when you arrive in role and you have a brief, and then an executive job is that you, you have something to deliver.

You have a reason for being there, and you set about meeting people and finding out what you're going to do and getting into delivery mode when the time is right. And of course, when you are a non-executive, you don't have a delivery brief. That's the whole point. And you need to find other ways to get to know the organization and to [00:05:00] understand how to interact with them.

I didn't realize that immediately in my first few weeks and months at Kew in particular, and combining not knowing that with imposter syndrome, because here I was at this extraordinary board of people on the board of trustees at Kew as a very eminent impressive group of people. And I was surrounded by all these impressive people and not having my usual modus operandi, which is to have a thing to do and to get on with doing my thing.

And what I wish I'd known then, and what I now know is there are all sorts of other ways, of course, which I was doing as well to learn about an organization. And I was going and meeting with various members of the team outside of board meetings. Of course I was, and I had an induction and so on. Those things combined meant that I held back.

And I stopped and listened and learned and spent a few weeks and months really just taking stock of this organization. And actually, whilst of course it's good to take time and to listen, and I probably did them all a service by not leaping straight [00:06:00] in on day one, I nevertheless could have been a little bit more bold.

And I now know that actually you You need to get up to speed reasonably quickly. And there are other ways of learning about an organization that don't just mean having a team and a budget and a mission to deliver as you would in an executive role. So I wish I'd known that.

And I've learned that now. That was a surprising discovery. In terms of doing work alongside an executive role, what I wish I had realised is that actually it's much more palatable for your executive employer to tolerate you having a non executive role if it's pro bono, and if it's for some sort of charity or government or purpose led organisation.

In fact, they embrace it. It took me a while to realize that that would help land it well with my employers, and that's a very useful thing to know. I think if it had been some huge B paying gig I think they understandably would have been a bit nervous about that. So it's it's useful to know that and to recognize the value of that distinction.

 And I don't think I'd have realized [00:07:00] before I started quite how much I would love it. And I wish I'd known that because I wouldn't have hesitated as much as I did. But no doubt we'll explore that a little bit more later. 

Oliver Cummings: Really interesting. And so what was it that sort of surprised you most there about what you loved it? It sounds like you weren't expecting to love it or perhaps you just didn't know what to expect? 

Sarah Flannigan: Didn't know what to expect and certainly sort of felt that I was to a certain extent fulfilling a duty that I was doing something important, a role of service, which is very important to me. But of course you, you get all sorts of things back as well.

Well, in the case of Q in particular the sense of spiritual refreshment that you get from being part of an organization like Q and having. board meetings in such a beautiful setting and meeting with such amazing people and this this amazing purpose around science led work carried out throughout the world by IQ scientists, that that's an amazing thing to be part of.

But what really surprised me was how much value having a non executive role added to having, to my executive life. You [00:08:00] find yourself re examining every daily conundrum that you're facing as an exec with a different view because you're suddenly seeing it from a different distance and a different perspective and in a different light.

And you can test both your executive and your non executive lives against one another and think, well, what would my peers in that organization do? Or what would the equivalent board in that organization do? And I found that incredibly helpful. It really helped give me perspective on the day to day in all sorts of ways.

And I suppose the biggest surprise, and it's obvious when you think about it, but I didn't anticipate it, is that the more non executive roles you have, the more you learn, and that's a rewarding thing in and of itself, and the more you learn and you work with great people and you can see what works and what doesn't, the more you can share that with it.

Everybody else in your portfolio and the more useful you therefore are and actually it's this wonderful Virtuous circle that the more I'm getting stimulated and enjoying and learning from from all the [00:09:00] great people I work with the more useful I am to others and that's that's that's a wonderful formula.

So I I enjoy that That was a lovely pleasant surprise I 

Oliver Cummings: love that. So what you were saying there about the cross pollination between the exec and non exec experience really resonates for me any particular examples as you're saying that I was I was thinking about to one of my experiences where I think it was the First time I saw a really purpose led Organization and you know, I'd come in with my I came from a private equity background So I came in with thinking we need bonuses and Lots of financial numbers to really understand what's going on here. 

And this organization was just unbelievably purpose driven and they got stuff done that we would never have got Done as a private equity organization just because everyone was so bought into it and I really Took that back into our organization. Are there specific examples that jump out for you? 

Sarah Flannigan: Yeah, similarly and in both directions. There's something about the imperative of being a charity or a not for profit, which is that you just have to find a way and, and actually [00:10:00] you can go and talk to in the case of technology, for example, to technology suppliers and negotiate deals that you simply wouldn't even have the audacity to ask for with in a commercial organization.

And that's certainly something that I took back as a CIO into, into my other roles that actually, you know, suppliers want to be part of very interesting initiatives. And that, that is a way in which you can get value from them, but it's different. 

But the same thing the other way. I mean, as EDF, for example, the health and safety culture at EDF is second to none, and I learned a huge amount in my permanent role there. I was able, and I'm still able, even now, to take that into all of my portfolio roles and say, I know what world class looks like. 

 And here are the ways in which you know whether you are world class or not and on a path of continuous improvement. Here's how we can and should think differently about it. So, it really does work both ways. As I say, you learn from one and you can take that learning and apply it to the next. 

Oliver Cummings: Brilliant. Now, you took on another trustee position at the National Lottery Heritage Fund not long[00:11:00] after. And later that year, you left your exec career you said you'd fallen into your first trustee role? Was that a conscious decision to stop being an exec and move into a portfolio career? 

Sarah Flannigan: Again, I'd love to say that it was a very deliberate move. It wasn't entirely, but more intentional now than perhaps in the years beforehand. I think I'd always had this sense that I might like something like a portfolio career.

I wouldn't have used those words at the time. It didn't occur to me that it was going to be then I knew, or at least I thought I knew that I still had at least a couple more big. exec jobs in me. But at the point at which I decided to leave EDF, I already had at that point, as you say, three non executive pro bono roles.

And I came across the advertisement for the chair role at Sordes as a non executive chair, obviously. And I fell in love. I already knew the organization and it was a [00:12:00] dream. It was a dream role. And I thought, crikey, this is going to make my decision for me. I'm going to throw my hat into the ring.

And clearly if I'm not going to leave my existing roles, because I'm very committed to them and I'm not going to not serve my term, that wouldn't be right. And if I get this role, I'm not going to be able to say no. And suddenly that's a portfolio without even really meaning it for, you know, for four roles, including a chair role.

And that will make my decision for me. And I applied and I. And that was the decision made. 

Oliver Cummings: For a lot of people, that transition of going from the pro bono roles into their first paid role is a really difficult one. So, you know, I will often counsel people that the level of competition for pro bono roles is on average on new role. I think we get something like 10 applications per role, whereas in the commercial space on average, it's 40 applications per role. So if you want to go and build non executive experience, figure out if you like it and also de [00:13:00] risk yourself as a non executive candidate, then, you know, in terms of competition, it's going to be easier to get a role in the pro bono space.

And I never say people should do it just as a stepping stone. You've got to love it because otherwise that's going to end up in disaster. But once people get to that stage, they will often then struggle to get from that pro bono Portfolio into a paid portfolio. Was that a leap for you or how? How did you think about that as a challenge? 

Sarah Flannigan: It was a challenge. I would say that what you perhaps don't realize when you set about trying to construct a portfolio Is that it never falls in the way that you might anticipate. So I mean, first of all, it was a big risk that I took. I had only ever been in permanent, secure employment.

To suddenly be effectively self employed was a, was a, was a scary leap to make. But what I had assumed and what did not turn out to be the case was that what I would do was [00:14:00] do quite a bit of consultancy work, quite a bit of technology consultancy alongside NED roles. I didn't set about to build an exclusively NED portfolio.

And that was partly because technology has always been a big part of what I do. And actually to keep current in technology, it really helps to be closer to the sharp end rather than a sort of a, you know, an ArmchairEd net. And I wanted to stay relevant and make sure that I was still keeping up with current technology trends.

So I anticipated that the vast majority of my work would be made up by client work. And that there might perhaps be some trustee and non exec roles along the way. And it just didn't work out like that. Actually whilst I, I still do both. My client work has gone down and down and down and down because it's being squeezed out by non exec roles and I just didn't anticipate that.

In terms of how to think about building that portfolio, there's no doubt that having had some. pro bono non exec roles, I really felt like I had spent quite a bit [00:15:00] of time on board and started to get a sense of good experience. So clearly that helped. 

As you say, it's absolutely not a reason in and of itself to try and become a trustee. That would be very short termist and self serving. You've got to really believe in the thing, but it has a happy by product, which is that you gain experience along the way, right? 

What the story of my current portfolio doesn't tell is for every organization that said yes to me, there were, of course, lots that said no. And when you're in an executive setting about building an executive career, you generally are interviewing usually for only one role at any one time, and it's a very binary thing.

You either get it or you don't, and you deal with the no if it's a no, and you go on to the next thing. If you're trying to build a portfolio, you're having a lot of conversations and you've got to kiss a lot of frogs. And some of them turn out to be toads and you just have to navigate your way through that.

So I gave myself two years. I thought I'm going to spend two years trying to make this work, and I can't make it work. Then I'll go back to full time work. And [00:16:00] it just worked out really well. I had a, you know, I had some bruising experiences and some things that went wrong and all those sorts of things that you might expect.

Fortunately, I had lots of things that landed well and early as well. So very early on in those two years, within only a few months, actually, I had a really great portfolio already and it's just carried on building from there. Yes, be ready for the no's as well as the yes's is an important point, and do value that experience that you can gain along the way.

Oliver Cummings: Yeah, so interesting. I think that's something people consistently underestimate is how bruising it is and how underprepared. People are for that bruising because they've been often very successful executives and they've forgotten often what it's like to be told no, and this environment is even more competitive. What were those bruising experiences for you? 

Sarah Flannigan: In my first few months, I consistently got down to last two in process after process after process. It [00:17:00] almost would have been better if I had you know, fallen out at the last stage, but I would have lots of. energizing, stimulating, great meetings with people, warm words from headhunters, you know and, and then feel like it was almost within reach and then at the last moment, that the role would go elsewhere or, or, or whatever.

And being candid, that will partly reflect the fact that I didn't, I often didn't look like the sort of person that that board might have thought that they were setting out to appoint at the beginning of the process. And that was true with Sordes and it's played out in lots of different ways.

 For some organizations, I was the unexpected candidate. And at the last minute, the one that they weren't quite brave enough to appoint maybe, and I'm sure they were right. And for others. I was more right than they could have hoped for, but that was a much smaller number of people.

Sarah Flannigan: At Sordes, I interviewed for the [00:18:00] chair role there, I packaged up all my experience, I imagine, in the way that one would. You know, I've got good non exec experience. Delivered some big transformations and I know about technology and all the things that were relevant to the brief.

And I think if you'd asked that board after they interviewed me, what they remembered, it wouldn't have been any of those things, although I'm sure they felt those things were important, they would have talked about things to do with fit and style.

And actually they'd have called out things like. A commonality of values set and a certain kind of energy, and the fact that I spoke fluent French, which is very important at Sordes, the fact that I'm a pianist, which believe it or not is a big thing, there's a grand piano in the middle of the office, I mean there were just various sort of cultural fit things that even though I won't have looked anything like what I think they anticipated they would have in pointing their chair, I nevertheless turned out to be the right person.

So perhaps that's how We can all think about it if anybody's trying to build a portfolio. For most people, if you're lucky enough to get through [00:19:00] lots of processes, you won't actually be successful. And you're, and that gets multiplied by eight or 10 or five because you're having lots of conversations simultaneously. But for the people you are right for you're very, very, very right.

Oliver Cummings: Was there something that clicked, do you think, for you when you eventually did make the breakthrough? Or do you think it was just a question of kissing a lot of frogs and, and just eventually a sort of law of probability that meant that you got through? 

Sarah Flannigan: Interesting. Well, we counterfactual because I suppose it rollercoastered quite quickly. So I stopped putting in for lots of processes and, I'll usually say no if somebody gets in touch because I'll be too busy.

So I don't know what would have carried on happening, but there's no doubt that actually I was very fortunate that a number of things came together at the same time. The Saw Days role The Holburne Museum, the Institute of Physics Publishing, I joined all those boards at the same time and suddenly [00:20:00] you look very different.

I no longer looked like former CIO of EDF. I looked like somebody who had a portfolio, even if it was a very new portfolio. And something magical did start to happen at that point, which is that people started to talk. So most of my roles since then were through referral and recommendation. And I feel very, very fortunate about that.

So those roles all quite quickly precipitated nearly all of my other roles as a human linkage. And it just goes to show you, you know, one needs to work very hard in every role because you never know what conversations are taking place about you somewhere. And people do report back. 

Oliver Cummings: And I suppose it's that classic that that first one is the most difficult to get and then often once people get that, as you say, snowballs and you become inundated with offers but lovely to hear your story of how you did break through there. 

You've Ended up with an incredibly [00:21:00] broad range of organizations that you work with across, you know, the listed space, investor backed businesses, as well as charitable organizations. How different have those been and how different do you feel? The value you can bring to those organizations is. 

Sarah Flannigan: Yeah, I mean, they are all very different. I have sat on or currently sit on private equity backed listed employee owned government charity, private. I mean, I don't think there are many forms of ownership that I haven't been directly involved with or am today.

I love that. I love the variety of that. And there are, of course, differences. And there are, of course, some similarities as well. I mean, differences are things like the strategic time horizon

with family owned businesses and with charities, for example, there's a [00:22:00] much longer strategic time horizon, and that is nearly always a good thing. You can make some long term decisions. Albeit in private equity backed businesses, you've got a very predictable cycle and that's very helpful as well.

That creates a very clear framework within which to make investment decisions. So that's differently helpful, but it's a different time horizon. Whereas with listed boards, sometimes you're just living from one announcement day to the next, and everything's defined by that. So the time horizon can be very different from one organization to the other.

The size and the nature of the board varies a lot. So some of the boards that I've been on are very small and tight, and it's a tight little team. Some of the charity and government boards are huge, 12, 14 people and they're often a very interesting group because you will have people representing whatever the purpose part of that charity is, and you'll have some captains of industry, and you'll have some interesting historians or [00:23:00] curators or scientists or whatever, 

I'm talking about various different boards here and somehow, And I've learned from watching other chairs do this, somehow the chair's got to corral all those people and represent the interests of all of those people in the round for the benefit of the organization. So that's very different 

so size of board, composition of board, the kind of skills you have on the board is very different from one to the next. And an employee ownership, because actually Two and a bit of the boards that I sit on are employee owned. Sordes is 52 Riverford is 100 percent employee owned, and Yeo Valley is 20 percent employee owned.

In those organisations, you've got a whole different set of governance altogether, where you have not just the board, the entity that I chair in each case, but you also have a council that's made up of representatives from staff and you also have some trustees and those three entities will hold one another to account.

So there are lots of different forms of governance, but there are similarities too, right? Because all organisations ultimately have the same [00:24:00] issues. All organisations are ultimately, and boards are ultimately responsible for making sure that there's a really clear strategy. That the board is aligned around that, that it has the means and the resources to deliver that strategy, that it has a plan, it knows how it's going to execute that plan, and it knows how it's going to hold itself to account for successful delivery of that plan.

That's common to all those organizations, irrespective of their ownership. All organizations are obsessed with their clients. Customer, whoever their customer is, it can be very different in each of those organizations, but you'll nevertheless have to always think about your own customer and what they're servicing there.

You know, all organizations are about people and talent and succession and leadership and getting the best out of your people. And the sorts of issues that come up with people are the same issues in any organization. And ultimately all of them, you have to be delivering on behalf of your shareholders, stakeholders, whoever, whoever the is.

So in a way, They're all very similar. And you asked then what my role would [00:25:00] be in each of those. I think the role that I end up playing is asking myself in the round about any organization. Where are we strong? Where are there some gaps? Am I the person to help? Identify and remedy those gaps. 

And so I end up playing a slightly different role in each organization according to where the need is greatest. And you've got to be quite disciplined to think like that, because in every organization I work in, there are lots of very interesting bits. And actually, if they're going well, And if your chief executive is on it, doesn't matter how interesting it is, hold back perhaps and just make sure that that's delivering and be the one to spot the gaps or the areas of deficit.

And that might be where you step in, but otherwise your role as a non exec on all those different organizations, all those different types of ownership structure is, is ultimately to deliver on behalf of the shareholders and stakeholders and make sure that we're, we're on plan to deliver whatever that strategy is. So ultimately I feel that my role is the same across all of them. 

Oliver Cummings: I'm curious to hear if you could build your [00:26:00] dream board where you could take one characteristic from each of those different ownership structures. What would be the characteristic that you would take from each of those? 

Sarah Flannigan: I would love the long term thinking, the ability to ride the wave every now and then, rather than some short term you know, cost cutting or, or, or whatever. 

Oliver Cummings: That's from the family business, is it? 

Sarah Flannigan: Yeah, I'll be quite careful about what I pick out of which organization. I love the ambition and commercial drive that I enjoy, I will name them at Bionic. Also from Bionic, I would love the technology capability that we have that would be wonderful if that was everywhere.

 All of my boards have one thing in common. And it's not by accident which I would want anywhere in a perfect ball, which is a sense of people who are up to something together. A hardworking team who are grafters and committed to that [00:27:00] organization and roll up their sleeves. 

And another common characteristic would always be around integrity and lack of politics getting on with it in the name of doing what's right for that company rather than anything else getting in the way. That would be part of a dream characteristic. I would love the resources that we have at Yove Valley. We've got, you know, very, very supportive shareholders.

That's wonderful. That enables all sorts of free thinking. And we've got wonderful cultures at both Sawdays and Riverford, where there's an amazing sense of employee commitment to those organizations and creative, innovative ideas that come from that that feed into the board in really good and important ways. They're the sorts of things, if I could have a. Pick and mix, all the sorts of things that I would love to bring to, bring to bear. 

Oliver Cummings: Love it. Now, you obviously made the transition from being a plural non exec into Becoming a plural chair it's one of the [00:28:00] topics that comes up most regularly in our, we do these mastermind groups for our community where non execs will exchange challenges that they are wrestling with and get their peer group to coach them through it essentially. What have you learned about that transition that you Didn't know at the time that would have been useful?

Sarah Flannigan: My organizations all want slightly different things from their chair. Some of them want me to be a neutral facilitator to hold back on my personal views on a particular subject that we might be debating and create that very important safe space where they can put in their ideas without fear of the chair coming along and saying, actually, I've got a different interpretation.

And they want to feel that safe space held, which I understand and really respect. I'll have other. boards where actually they'd much rather have me fully participate and [00:29:00] would say, have said, why would we not try and tap into. expertise and experience that you've got from elsewhere and only have you as a neutral facilitator.

Knowing how and when to play that and understanding and being explicit with colleagues about what role it is that they want you to play is not something that I'd anticipated as a chair. And it's something that I've now learned to do. And sometimes, and on very, very rare occasions, and I've only where I've pre contracted with my board to do this, I will say in the middle of a meeting.

I'm actually just going to take my chair hat off, and just for a moment, I'm just going to play in a particular view, just because I'd love to stimulate some conversation about that. I'll give you that, and now I'm putting my chair hat back on and on. But you've got to use that very choicefully and carefully, because otherwise it can destabilise the conversation.

Now, What I've also learned therefore about the fact that I've only got chair roles at the moment, given that neutral facilitator sort of persona that some want you to [00:30:00] adopt, is that actually I no longer have the opportunity as a non exec to play in views in a freer way than you otherwise might.

And I do confess that there are times when I'm in board meetings thinking, someone make this point, please someone make this point because I think it needs to be made. It's liberating to be a, an non-exec. So being a monoculture chair is not necessarily exactly right for me. I would love, I will always want to have chair roles.

 I am somebody that needs to drive things. I'm somebody who needs to feel ownership and accountability and to be able to feel like I'm really playing my part in driving an organization. And for me, that means being chair. So I'll always need to. have chair roles, but I think I would always like to make sure in future that there's a at least one non exec role somewhere in the mix as well.

So thinking about the mix of chair roles versus non exec has been very important to me as well. 

Oliver Cummings: Super interesting. And do you think that would be, if you were designing your [00:31:00] perfect chair role, where, you know, it could be exactly as you think it should be, would you have the chair who is that sort of neutral person, or do you think the chair should be able to Share their perspective more openly.

Sarah Flannigan: Well, there's a distinction in terms of overall tone and ambition setting and strategic intent. I think the chair absolutely should always play in where they're at, but you don't have to do that by landing an opinion on a particular point there is. 

So I absolutely think that the perfect, and I hope I do this in, in, in all my boards, there's a, there's a tone that you set a framework within which you want your colleagues to make great decisions.

And that's where, you know, you're not some sort of shadowy grey figure with no personality. That is where you make your mark, I think. But as I say, with some I stop at that point and I don't go any further. I've got no perfect right or wrong. It is really about what's right for those [00:32:00] people around the table.

One of the things that I've learnt is that being a chair or being a non exec isn't a single Issue thing. Of course, it isn't. Every organization is different. Every organization has a completely different culture. You need to read that and hear that and respond to it and deliver what's right for that group of people.

So I don't think there is a right or wrong. I don't think I'd have a preference. What I want to feel is I'm doing what's right for that group of people that I'm serving them in the way that they want to be served and doing my best for them. 

Oliver Cummings: Okay. Really interesting. I'm curious to hear what your experience going for those chair roles has been in the past I've talked with different guests on the podcast about the sorts of questions they were asked as non execs haven't talked so much about the sorts of questions people have had as prospective chairs what what have been the good questions that you've had at interview as a chair and and what have been the bad ones? 

Sarah Flannigan: A really interesting question that we tackled right at the [00:33:00] outset with Bionic was what does being an independent chair mean to me and to Bionic?

And that was particularly important because the. PE investors, OMERS, I am also a senior advisor with. That's how I know them. That's how I met Bionic. And I've worked with the OMERS team for a few years. And what we all had to be very careful of was just because I've got a very good, strong relationship with, with OMERS.

How would that play out in the boardroom? 

And so we had some really good conversations early on about what being an independent chair means and there were silly tactical things that we agreed like, I've got two email accounts, I've got an owner's email account and I've got my own everything else portfolio email account and we use that.

Not my OMAS account because I'm not there with my OMAS hat on. I wear my OMAS hat in other conversations, but not this one. We're able to draw on the good relationships that I have with the OMAS team, but I'm nevertheless there to make sure that [00:34:00] ultimately, I'm supporting the Chief Executive and his team, and that they are set up to succeed in all the ways that we have defined as a board that we want them to succeed and that I can help deliver on all of the shareholder objectives as they've been set out.

So that again is a more independent role. I'm very clear on that. And we took that a step further once we had decided that I was going to be the new chair. And we went out for a conversation over dinner where we said, all right, let's. rehearse now how we're going to handle things, even when it goes wrong.

How let's rehearse a little bit, the sorts of scenarios that might come up and how are each of us going to show up in those moments and how are we going to behave and how are we going to try and anticipate that and, and, and manage it well. And that was, that, that was a really good conversation to have and one that I will now, you know, that gets put into the playbook of how I would always do things going forward.

It was a good conversation to have. It's, you know, let's hope we never have to go back and [00:35:00] revisit it, but how great that we did. 

Oliver Cummings: I love that. So the pre mortem funny enough. I was, I was sitting with a group of investor backed CEOs not long ago.

We were talking about exactly this conflict between the chair. back company where ultimately those chairs will often have like an ongoing relationship with the investor. And that was the relationship with the CEO or the founder, depending on the sort of stage of the organization is a one off journey for whether it's 5 10 15 years, whatever it might be 

that journey with the the investor could be, you know, decades long and the point being flagged By these ceos was the chair always knows which side their bread is being buttered on And how do we counter that that when things really 50 50 decision.

It's always going to fall on the side of the investor because that's where the economic incentives lie and we're talking a little bit about [00:36:00] how the importance of building a personal relationship with the chair outside of the boardroom so that you can counter some of the economic incentives with a sort of more human and moral counterpoint but how do you think about that, and how do you resolve that tension and how do you give your CEO, your executive, the comfort that actually You know, given the weighting of those incentives, you're not always going to come down in favor of the other side.

Sarah Flannigan: What I have to do in all of my board roles, and including in this case, is work really hard at building trust. And there are those moments that I need to be constantly alive to, which perhaps unwittingly might betray an actual or perceived bias.

My constant yardstick, the lodestone that I refer to all the time in my mind is what's the best way of delivering the particular bit of the strategy that we've all agreed [00:37:00] here? And am I making sure that this board is delivering it? And if at any point, one of my chief executives is going to do something that I think will compromise that, then that tells me which way I need to zero in on.

And equally, if I've got investor or other shareholder behavior that I think is driving the wrong outcomes for delivering the strategy, then I need to influence there. And I think, I hope to think that in all of my boards, not just in the private equity context, I hope that they would all feel that I'm very balanced and will intervene where I feel that any one person or group of people is not acting in the interest of the business overall.

And staying true to that overall strategy that we've agreed is the way of getting through those sticky moments. But it is about building trust. That's really important. 

Oliver Cummings: It's really interesting, actually listening to you talk, what just jumped out at me there is what's very clear so since you're very values driven and you can see that in your portfolio, like if I look at your portfolio, there's a, there are consistent themes [00:38:00] running through it of, you know, purpose driven, sustainability and, and various other things that actually I can think of some other chairs I know where.

There's not much that runs consistently through their portfolio, other than that, they're looking to make money out of it. And I suppose that's something as a CEO that you, one would take, I would take comfort from if I sort of had you as my chair, that actually you have values that, that are there for me to see in other areas that are, could at least offset the, the sort of near term economic incentives of a, of any given decision.

Sarah Flannigan: Well, what I am is very explicit with everyone about my pick list of why I would be interested in joining a particular organization or not. I've got criteria, tests that need to be fulfilled. And I'm transparent about those and my portfolio does speak to them. And so, as you say, I've got the evidence that follows on behind, and my pick list includes first and foremost that values point.

Do I fundamentally like these people? And to like [00:39:00] them, they've got to be high integrity and straight, and I haven't got time for politics, and I haven't got time for bullshit, and are they hard working? Are they grafters? And is there a task to be done here? So there's an overall sort of cultural values fit?

As you get older, you realize, don't you, life's too short. I've, you know, we've all spent time working with people where there's values misalignment, it's not much fun. And I'm now in the very privileged position of being able to pick and choose. So that's criteria number one.

Criteria number two is, do I rate the chief executive? Particularly important, clearly, if you're going to be chair. But Ned as well, is this someone who I rate, value, trust and somebody who I want to partner with? Can I, and would we be a good team? The third is is there some really interesting knotty challenge or thing to be done?

Is there some huge growth opportunity? Is there some huge disruption on the cards in the market? Is there some big transformation? I'm not interested in steady state. I never was as an executive. I'm certainly not [00:40:00] as a non executive. Is there something for us all to go after here? Is the third of my four tests.

And the fourth and final test is. Can I add any value? The first three might be true, but if there's no space for me, then what's the point? I want to feel useful. I want to, I use this word service quite a lot, which sounds really naff, but I, I do want to serve. I want to feel like I'm adding value and making a difference.

And if I can see where I might be able to do that, then those things together make me think this is an organization I really want to be part of. And it perhaps isn't coincidence that what that spits out often is purpose led. commercially strong businesses where the two needn't be in tension.

And in fact, one reinforces the other. And I find that intellectually stimulating and from a values point of view that sits very well with me and, and, and that creates the best conditions for me to really enjoy myself. And hopefully if I'm enjoying myself, then I'm, you know, doing some useful work somewhere along the way as well [00:41:00] for my colleagues.

Oliver Cummings: Love that. When you were thinking about I suppose the other side of it when you're sitting in your chair role and thinking about building your own boards and bringing on non execs, what are the things that you're looking for? 

Sarah Flannigan: Well, again, it's case by case. I will always look at the overall personality profiling, the, the, the mix of the people that we have and ask myself, what are the gaps? So that's the first thing, and that's a very different answer in all of my boards, inevitably.

Sometimes it will be a functional gap. There'll be a specific set of expertise that I feel like the board could really do with. That always hangs off whatever the strategy is. So what are we trying to achieve in the next few years? Where are we set up to succeed? Where might we benefit from some particular expertise?

And is that a functional gap therefore that we need to fill? Sometimes, and usually in fact, there will also be something about fit. So I've got one board, for example, where we have a tendency to reflection. And analysis [00:42:00] and careful thought, and it produces some really good quality conversations as a result, but it also produces a certain sense of risk aversion.

And that board really would benefit from something completely different in the mix. But my goodness, that's got to play in well because that could really jar. So thinking about the overall sort of sense of ambition and risk appetite and those sorts of things is something that's, that's very important.

I ask people about their values. I ask people always, you know, where have they got it wrong in the past and what they learned from that. I always ask people for their reading of the organisation that they're interviewing for. It's very interesting to see what they hear. A tell is when they'll start telling you, in answering that question, why they think they might be right for the role.

And actually what you want to hear is that ability to commercially and, between the lines, read an organization and understand what some of the big strategic [00:43:00] questions might be and what part that, we need an exec to play. So I always want to see whether they are capable of reading an organization in the round, whatever their role might be. They're the sorts of things that I explore. 

Oliver Cummings: Sarah, the time has flown by, which means it's time to go on to a lightning round. So first up, the boardroom behavior that irritates you most. 

Sarah Flannigan: Oh, grandstanding.

It's where ego gets in the way, where ego intrudes, where people make a point because they want to look clever rather than genuinely doing something, saying something that's useful for the organization. I can't bear it. It really gets me. 

Oliver Cummings: Best book every board member should read and why? 

Sarah Flannigan: One that I would recommend is by the folks from Board Intelligence Jennifer Berg and Beck, and they've just written a book. You are nodding so you know them, I'm sure How to build a business that's smarter than you. And, and what they taught me 15 years ago was how to identify what the killer questions are for any organization that you are working in.

What really are the questions as a board [00:44:00] that you need to answer in order to then work out how you respond to them. And that critical thinking ability is amazing. And if. If anybody wants to strengthen that, then that's a good book to read. 

Oliver Cummings: I love that. Jen will be delighted. I have got her coming up as a guest. Favorite quote and why? 

Sarah Flannigan: I don't have a quote. I'll tell you what I always say to my children. So it's a me quote rather than a famous person quote. I always say just be kind and be honest. And as long as you are always those two things, you can forgive yourself anything else. 

Oliver Cummings: Your most significant professional insight?

Sarah Flannigan: Oh, well, actually personality profiling and understanding teams through the lens of Myers Briggs or whatever is always invaluable. I remember one particularly amazing episode at the National Trust when we'd all done our Myers Briggs and various exercises that suddenly exposed things that we'd half known but never really understood.

There was one in particular with a beautiful renaissance painting that two groups of us were asked to describe and me and a colleague did so in [00:45:00] a short fire way of a series of nouns and our colleagues in the other group to our utter amazement described in long form and hyperbole all sorts of wonderful emotive language that this painting aroused in them and it really helped the penny drop about. Why we behave differently in certain situations, so I always find that very helpful. 

Oliver Cummings: I remember the same when I had we did this with our team, the head of sales who is a clear red and our CTO who is a clear blue you know, suddenly have that penny drop moment as one of them is be, be, be bright, be gone. And the other is the sort of the polar opposite. Sarah, thank you so much. It's been such a joy listening to your incredible journey. And what also sort of has shone out for me is your ability to listen. You're a brilliant listener and anticipating. So thank you so much for taking the time to share all your insights, wisdom, and experience.

And thanks to all of you listening. We've been blown away by the incredible feedback about how this podcast has been helping you get board roles and become better board members. [00:46:00] This podcast is for you, so if you'd like to suggest guests, topics, difficult challenges, or you'd like to share stories about how the podcast has impacted you, or have suggestions on how we can improve, please email Podcast at new role.

com that's podcast at new role. com and let me know. I'd love to hear from you otherwise. Thanks again for listening and look forward to having you back here for the next discussion.

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

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