The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Gerry Brown About Making a Difference: Leadership, Change and Giving Back the Independent Director Way

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Gerry Brown About Making a Difference: Leadership, Change and Giving Back the Independent Director Way


Summary: Gerry Brown is so keen to see people geting involved that there's a free digital download of this £42 book.
Date: January 2021
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Gerry Brown is so keen to see people geting involved that there's a free digital download of this £42 book.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Gerry Brown: I would hope my readers would be those from a variety of backgrounds who really want to make a difference but did not really know how until they discovered my book.

  • BB: You've described some boards as 'male, pale and stale' but you seem to qualify on two points! How do you differentiate yourself?

GB: My differentiation is partly because of my very varied career as an Independent Chair and Director of 12 very different businesses. I held positions in a variety of different sectors including financial services, life sciences, logistics, construction, ports and property. My experience is also global so required the need to be flexible and also to adapt your thinking to different cultures. I have also worked for different types of owners including public companies, private equity and privately owned business as well as a University. These very different challenges stimulate the mind and so hopefully help one to avoid becoming stale.

  • BB: Boards, you say, have been fishing from the same pool to find independent directors. We're in challenging times: what's to stop boards thinking that 'tried and tested' is best and sticking with what they know? How about a book directed at boards to convince them of the value of diversity?

GB: Something that should stop boards sticking with what they know in their selection of board members is the crisis in governance enhanced by the challenges of CoVid. As shown in another of my books - The Independent Director in Society (Palgrave) - across all sectors there is a real need to improve the effectiveness of boards. One key effecting change is to increase the diversity of boards (the link between board performance and diversity has been proven by several studies). This is not diversity for its own sake but linked to a clear competence to contribute to the board in a specific ways (for example, in digital transformation)

  • BB: You say that acquiring the first ID role requires as much perseverance, planning and tenacity as acquiring any executive role and that boards will naturally lean towards people with prior experience. What can an aspiring ID do to encourage a board to look beyond the obvious candidates?

GB: The aspiring Independent Director should first investigate the main challenges facing the board of the organisation that they hope to join. Obviously, they should review their skills, experience and personal attributes. They are then in a better position to identify the value which they potentially bring to the board regarding specific challenges it faces and can evidence the relevant attributes, knowledge and skills from their curriculum vitae.

  • BB: I loved the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility and Employer Supported Volunteering Schemes where employers give time off to help people who are volunteering in the community: in challenging times, when we're seeing hundreds of thousands of redundancies and businesses closing, do you have any fears that these schemes will be one of the first to be 'suspended'?

GB: I do have concerns that firms faced with financial difficulties will be looking at ways to save costs and, therefore, reduce their commitment to support volunteering.

  • BB: Does the fact that legal liability starts on day one put some people off? I can imagine that younger people with other responsibilities might find this a bit too much to take on.

GB: There is no doubt that the legal responsibilities of board members - which have become more onerous - can put people off from considering becoming an independent director. However, well run organisations usually have Comprehensive Insurance Cover for their Board Directors including independent directors. Those aspiring to become independent directors should - as part of their due diligence on an organisation – remember to investigate this issue.

  • BB: I liked your section on writing the model CV but I noticed that all the examples have executive (or equivalent) experience. Is anyone going to pick up an independent directorship without this sort of experience?

GB: Having some executive experience is a great asset for anyone with ambitions to become an independent director. Of course, there are exceptions. For example of people who excel at a particular sport and then later become a Board Member of a sporting organisation. In such cases, I would especially recommend that they receive some training in the Executive aspects of management.

  • BB: Looking back at your first independent directorship, what would you do differently if you were starting today?

GB: I would have done much more due diligence around the strategic plan of the business and spent more time getting to know the motivations and plans of the key board members (especially the founder investors).

  • BB: Looking back at the boards you've worked with, how many were truly diverse and has the situation improved over time?

GB: I have been very fortunate to have been a member of a number of boards which became more diverse over time. As a consequence, I was able to see first-hand the real business benefits. The evidence is - in public companies, at least - there is more gender diversity and diversity of experience. However, as my book The Independent Director in Society demonstrated, in the not-for-profit sectors there is a real need to speed up the progress towards greater diversity in their boards when it comes to experience, age, gender, ethnicity and disability.

  • BB: What's next for Gerry Brown?

GB: I am currently writing a book with London Business School about Global Business Scandals. This covers many things including their underlying and proximate causes as well as proposals for preventing scandals and other board improvements.

  • BB: That's a book we're really looking forward to seeing. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

You can read more about Gerry Brown here.

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