Dame Liz Forgan DBE has had a formidable career in the media. She started out in local newspapers before moving on to The Guardian where she was women’s editor. Next stop was the founding team of Channel 4, where she was director of programmes for ten years, before moving on to become managing director of BBC network radio.
She then returned to her roots as chair of the Scott Trust, owner of the The Guardian, and is now chair of Bristol Old Vic, the National Youth Orchestra and The Guardian Foundation. And she has just added another string to her bow, becoming chair of the Aurora Orchestra. Here she explains what her years as a chair have taught her about what makes an outstanding board.
You’ve sat on many boards, what was it that drew you to the role of chair of the Aurora Orchestra?
I think that they are the most wonderful orchestra. They are exceptionally brilliant technically and exceptionally brave and courageous artistically. They are very unusual and very talented. I’m at a time in my life where I don’t have to work anymore, so I can just do things that inspire me. Aurora does that.
What will you bring to the Aurora board?
I am an experienced chair. I know how to run board meetings and, I hope, how to get the best out of board members in support of an organisation. I hope that I am a useful chair for creative artists. I have worked with a lot of them. I understand the challenges of being an artist and trying to run a business at the same time. And, I know a lot of people in the arts and I hope that I can open some doors for them.
Having sat on several boards over the years, which factors do you think make a fantastic board?
I have only arrived at one board that was really in trouble and I am not going to tell you which one it was, but the reason for the trouble was that the non-executive members of the board had lost faith in the executive and, instead of tackling the problem, they had set about running the business themselves – they were even writing policy papers.
I learnt a very important lesson there about the absolutely vital necessity to be clear about the difference between executive and non-executive members of an organisation and who does what and how they react with each other.
Another lesson I learnt from one of the best boards I have ever been on is that diversity of everything – politics, culture, ethnicity – is an absolute strength. It’s not just about ethnicity, it can also be about age or disability or geography. Diversity we tend to talk about only in terms of ethnic minorities, but that’s not the end of it. The more a board can work through coming at a subject from diverse directions to arrive at an agreed policy, the stronger that policy will be.
Classical music has a real problem with ethnic diversity. The Chineke! Foundation has done wonders to address this, but we have got a long way to go.
How can you encourage more people from ethnic minorities to get involved in the business of classical music?
Two things need to happen. One is that they really need to recruit people with visible difference to the board, so that the board can reflect a wider diversity.
The second is that the classical music world as a whole needs to encourage talent from, in particular, Afro Caribbean groups. Asian groups are much easier to recruit as players to classical orchestras, because there is a thriving tradition of classical playing within Asian countries, less so in Afro Caribbean ones, but look at the work that is happening at the National Youth Orchestra now with their Inspire programme, look at the work of Chineke! It’s quite plain that there are plenty of people in that ethnic grouping who are brilliant classical musicians, so we need to find them.
What are the qualities that you need to be a good chair?
You need to be the archangel Gabriel! I think it’s important that you have a strong sense of strategy. As a non-executive chair, I think that your operating principle ought to be that the bouquets go to the executives and the brickbats get fielded by you. The chair is there to deal with trouble, not to take the credit.
If it’s not that way around the executives can’t be brave. The executives are able to do their best work and be courageous if at their back is a chair who will not only defend them, but also take the flack when it comes. And you need a real empathy to use and listen to the contributions both of the executive and the non-executive members of the board, that’s really important.
What are your thoughts on the Nurole platform?
I think it’s excellent. It’s very simple. It’s very efficient. It’s very cheap and it uses the resources of the crowd that digital technology has given us access to in a brilliant intelligent way. I’m sure that it’s had a very good effect on the ability of companies to broaden their search and the ability of candidates to know what’s going on.
And now for some quickfire questions...
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Robert Peston’s book WTF?.
What has been your biggest break?
I think the most unexpected thing that ever happened to me was Jeremy Isaacs hiring me out of nowhere to run factual programmes at Channel 4 at its very beginning.
What’s your favourite quote?
Noel Coward: “Work is more fun than fun”
What do you do to have fun?
I sing with the Crouch End Festival Chorus, which is rather wonderful. Hard work, but great fun!
What’s your favourite app?
Citymapper, it tells you how to get anywhere!
When does your alarm go off and how much sleep do you need?
It doesn’t. I wake up naturally and I get lots of sleep, probably around seven and a half hours.
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