Grossman is a former Commissioner of English Heritage; he was Chair of the University for the Creative Arts, Heritage Alliance, and of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. He founded and was Chairman of the 24 Hour Museum (now Culture24) - and his current roles include being Chair of The Royal Parks, a new charity to manage London’s Royal Parks as well as other landmark sites including Horse Guards Parade, and the Nurole-appointed role of Chair of Gresham College - the 400-year-old institution that Grossman inimitably describes here as “the great grandfather of Ted Talks.”
You’ve probably sat at more boardroom tables than even the most wizened corporate suit by now - but how did you feel in your first board meeting?
Terrified. I started looking at non-exec and charitable roles in the mid-90s; I was in my early 40s, still in the midst of my career, but had been brought up in a family with a very strong charitable ethos and the first opportunity I had to contribute, I wanted to get involved. It was on the government-backed Museum and Galleries Commission, and my first impression was terror at the very steep learning curve I faced. It was at my first board meeting that I realised just how much I had to learn. But one of the things I most appreciated was that my fellow members were really supportive, generous, and clever - and they taught me pretty quickly what I had to do.
Your CV is packed with choice board roles - have you walked into every opportunity you’ve desired?
No! In fact, I still remember back in the late 80s, when I really wanted to be on the board of a particular heritage charity, and I made my approach… But the message came back that they didn’t want ‘my sort of person’ on the board. I wasn’t put off, though. And they seemed to get on well without me.
As a chair now, how do you help board newbies?
I always spend a lot of time with them - new board members need very thorough inductions to help them to flourish. I make sure the executives get to know them too: I don’t like ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a boardroom. In my view, when you join a board you’re joining a family - the employees and board members are all trying to do good things for the organisation. It’s a very intense, personal, emotional relationship as well as a legal one.
Yours is a well-known face in the not-very-celeb atmosphere of the boardroom. Do you think charities should bring more celebrities into their boards?
Boards should try to be relatively blind to things like celebrity - there are some very good well-known people on boards, but fame alone is not enough: what really counts is doing the work. Boards have huge responsibilities and duties; if you want celebrity names attached to your institution or charity, make them a patron, or vice-president - they can be extraordinarily helpful. But when it comes to being a board member, with the great duties involved, the necessary willingness to bear the responsibilities and realise your legal obligations are significant. Celebrity shouldn’t come into it.
What made you apply to chair Gresham College?
The fact that it’s such an important institution in the City of London, thriving since the late 16th century - and was such a pioneer of open access learning. I am a populist - I’m passionate that people should be able to be exposed to absolutely the best, most significant academic work, without having to pass through all sorts of exams and paperwork - I love the way that Gresham makes top academics and their thinking accessible to anyone who wants to show up - or to listen online. It’s the great grandfather of open access, or Ted Talks.
As a populist, how do you feel about current board make-ups?
There’s a risk that boards are becoming stale - full of the same people on each others’ boards. The biggest challenge we face is how to bring in new people who may have incredible intelligence, innovation but don’t have the experience - we need a strategy to recruit younger people and those with different types of experience to our boards. I think Nurole is helping with that - reaching out to people beyond the traditional executive search places.
What is the one skill you look for in every applicant to your boards?
Passion - that leads to the necessary willingness to put the time into it. It’s not the board meetings and sub-committees, it’s reading the paperwork, and getting involved with the institution. You need real enthusiasm and understanding of the role. Sometimes people apply for board roles and I get the sense they’re thinking ‘now is the time that I should be on a charitable board, it’s the thing my CV needs.’ That type of applicant doesn’t interest me - I’m always looking for a genuine enthusiasm to the mission of the board.
And now for some quick-fire Questions…
What’s your favourite book?
Middlemarch, George Eliot.
Wherever I’m going next. Right now, it’s Sicily this summer.
What do you do to have fun?
I sit on boards… Oh, and play the guitar, try to learn to draw and eat and drink with friends.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
I always get up before my alarm goes off - I don’t really get as much sleep as I’d like, about six hours.
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