Laura Sandys is Deputy Chair of the Food Standards Agency, the Founder of the Food Foundation and the CEO of Challenging Ideas, a business consultancy specialising in the energy, food and resources sector. She is a former chair of the European Movement UK, and a British Conservative Party politician, who served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for South Thanet between 2010 and 2015. Through Nurole she was appointed as an independent director on the board of SGN (previously known as Scotia Gas Networks), the UK gas distribution company.
What can someone with government experience bring to a commercial Board?
All companies have different kinds of risks, the biggest one at the moment is around Brexit and regulation, and how the regulatory framework is going to change. People with a Government background can add perspective and help assess this kind of risk at board level. There are fundamentally different decision making processes in governments and in corporates. The rationale behind business decisions is more predictable and understandable than some of the decisions made in a political environment where there are a wide range of political and societal angles to consider.
What are the key lessons boards can learn from your experiences in government?
In highly regulated sectors there is a tendency to ask government for permission to do things. However, the Government is as much looking to businesses for solutions as the other way round. On one hand, it’s about appreciating the political environment. On the other, business needs to own its own future when it comes to lobbying and talking to government. They should be realistic but bold. A good board or board members with the right experience can offer a bridge between the two.
How do you find the right mix of people for your Board?
I am particularly interested in the energy sector and, in that industry at least, there is a need for a lot more diversity of skills and perspectives in the boardroom. Whether that is gender or age, technology or marketing, HR or cyber. There is a huge opportunity for non-executives to broaden the horizons of an organisation but it needs boards to be bolder about where they look. Nurole helps with that.
What is your best advice for aspiring first time NEDs?
Persist. It takes time to build your narrative. If you are a young leader, play the youth card strongly - never feel like it’s a negative as boards can benefit hugely from age diversity. Especially in light of some of the rapid technological changes we are seeing where different generations see risk in different ways and this is a great way of helping spot things coming down the line.
What has characterised the best boards or leaders you have worked with?The best boards are led by a great chair and shape the destination but allow the executives to manage and shape the journey.
When have you got it most wrong professionally and what did you learn?
In politics what I got wrong was asking the wrong questions - to begin with, I didn’t understand the difference between a political decision and a corporate decision.
What’s the best professional advice you ever received?
Listen rather than talk. In the political world you have to make your point and be forceful about your position. Coming out of politics you have to remember that your ears are as important as your mouth.
How did you hear about Nurole?
I heard about it through a friend who was on the platform and said I should sign up. I had been intrigued by the sort of companies advertising on Nurole. It’s a reflection of the way the industry is becoming more transparent which is only a good thing. Anyone that I speak to about Nurole has been very positive about how flexible it is, both for members looking for a role and people looking for board members.
About You - Quick Fire
3 words the person who has worked most with you would use to characterise you?
Fun, challenging, realistic.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.
Tamarind, an Indian restaurant in London.
I always need a combination of lots of rest & relaxation. I loved Mexico.
Friends are my greatest passion - spending time with friends is the best form of relaxation.
Professional achievement of which you are most proud?
Setting up the The Food Foundation, a think tank I have established looking at the negative impact of the food system on lowest income families.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
Goes off about 6-6.30 and I am normally awake just before that.
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