With a packed CV of non-executive roles including spells on the boards of Barclays and Ashmore, Simon Fraser, 59, the former chief investment officer of Fidelity International, currently chairs four commercial boards - Merchants Trust, Fidelity Funds and McInroy & Wood as well as F&C Investment Trust – he also chairs The Investor Forum, the advisory group for institutional investors that helps them engage collectively with UK companies. Fraser is Treasurer of health charity The King’s Fund and Vice President of the National Trust for Scotland. This broad experience sees him highlight the benefits of hiring ‘first timers’ on boards; he discusses how chairs can draw out the best from them, and how newcomers can fit in.
You’ve hired seven NEDs via Nurole - of whom four were first-timers, including property giant Hammerson’s CFO Timon Drakesmith at Merchant’s Trust. Why hire first-timers as a chair- surely it’s more work?
Hiring new people means they’re very keen to learn. And they can help you fill a specific skills gap, whether it’s marketing expertise or digital. Lack of experience of a board is easy to accommodate, but finding someone who can offer great insight to your board whilst listening and gelling with existing members is far harder. Also, I think the biggest challenge for boards is to constantly look at themselves in the mirror, not be swayed by aggressive management, and not let success get to your head - egos get in the way and can make boards complacent. I find new board members are more likely to ask the most insightful question.
In the old days, people used to think the objective of a board was to come to a consensus decision. That’s antiquated: I think the role of a board is to come up with the right decision, whoever instigates it. If someone is more of an expert in marketing or risk management or fund management, say, and that’s the company’s problem, put more weight on their argument in the discussion; listen to them more carefully. Their expertise matters most and they can help boards come up with the best way forward.
How can chairs ease first-timers in?
Meet with individual members of a board as frequently as possible, especially the new ones, and encourage existing members to contact new members - although usually that happens naturally.
How have you hired your board first-timers?
Nurole has really helped: it gives you candidates who have one thing in common - they’re all keen on doing your role; they’ve applied for it. During the traditional search process, you’d hire a search firm, and identify two or three people from their shortlist, only to approach them and discover they don’t have the time or can’t do it. The huge differentiator with Nurole is you’ll find someone who really wants to do a job, and the candidates tend to be beyond the usual pool of the same people doing the rounds.
What’s your advice to an executive who has the opportunity to take on a (first) non-executive role?
Pause! Don’t say yes because you’re flattered, or surprised - and definitely don’t say ‘yes’ without really understanding what’s required. Each board role is different: it’s just like buying a house - the one you want to buy doesn’t necessarily come on the market in the month you want to buy it. With non-exec roles, there’s merit in waiting for the right one to come along - all boards rotate their members at some point.
If it’s a position that interests you, though, my main recommendation is to really understand the company, and board members. Ensure that firstly, you can bring something relevant to that board, and secondly, there’s a cultural fit.
What stands out about a great board?
The people. Not just the individual members, but - more importantly - how they work together and respect each other. It’s just like a sports team: you want people who are good at scoring goals and people who are top defenders. On a board you want a diverse group of people who are good at working together - and the chair’s role is key to making that happen.
… and what about a terrible board?
If you do your homework when picking board candidates, which I find Nurole really helps with, and spend time getting to know people individually, then the number of serious accidents is pretty rare. Usually any problems stem from people not ‘gelling’. When that happens, you can’t let the issue linger. Identify any problems early and deal with them. It’s very rare that someone’s completely ineffectual - more often it’s that they’ve done their time, they’re not offering as much to a board as they once were, and it’s time to move on.
What’s your advice for NED virgins ahead of their first board meeting?
Take your time; listen and learn. Don’t feel you have to say something but if you have something to say, don’t be shy. You might think it’s a stupid question - ask it anyway. Inevitably it will be the key question that no one else has spotted.
You've got a portfolio of board positions - and will next year step down from F&C after nine years, in line with new corporate governance guidance. What are your thoughts on a maximum number of board roles?
I think it’s hard to set a maximum number of boards one should be on - each has different demands. A well-run, large company with a good board can work with just a few regular board meetings each year, whereas a small company without that depth of experience may require far more time.
When I was at Barclays, new rules for SIFI banks meant non-execs could only be on four boards. I was the only person that potentially fell foul of that rule, which seemed ludicrous because, at the time, I definitely had more time than the other NEDs, some of whom had full-time executive roles or were Chairing other FTSE companies.
ISS and other proxy agencies are now putting a scoring system on the number of board roles for one individual, but every situation is different and individual judgment is more important than a rule. There is definitely a maximum amount of board work one person can do, and I suspect that number is going to go down as the responsibility of boards continues to grow.
Let’s zoom through some quick-fire Qs...
Which three words would your closest colleagues describe you as?
Persistent, calm, non-confrontational. (That’s four, but we’ll allow it.)
Yuval Harari’s Sapiens.
You can’t get rich quick.
The west coast of Scotland.
What do you do for fun?
Enjoy the great outdoors.
WhatsApp (sorry it’s a boring choice).
What’s your proudest professional achievement?
Being involved in building up Fidelity from a tiny business to what it is today.
Leap-out-of-bed type or snooze-button-presser?
A mixture: I go to bed about midnight, and my alarm goes off at 6.30. I like having structure to my day; lots of meetings in the diary. But I also love the flexibility of board roles - nobody complains if you take a day off, and you’re not accountable to any single person. If I’d retired after my executive career I’d probably be bored at home, wasting time on the internet!
Lucy Tobin is a senior City journalist and columnist at the Evening Standard. She tweets @lucytobin.
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