Climate emergency, diversity and the chief corporate governance officer – reflections on the 2019 ICSA Conference

The 2019 ICSA Conference had its usual mix of speakers and perspectives which it can sometimes take a while to synthesise.  A few days later I am a little surprised to find that what I took away from it can be woven together by a quote that Professor Sir Cary Cooper (Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester) used in his fascinating presentation about “The costs, sources and strategies to enhance mental wellbeing at work”.  The quote was from Robert F Kennedy’s remarks at the University of Kansas in 1968 :-

“Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all.

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman‘s rifle and Speck‘s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world”.

The first thing that is striking about this quote is that it is over 50 years old, but is even more relevant now than it was then.  However, when I think about the other sessions I attended at the conference, it is heartening that 50 years later we appear to be finally beginning to think about things differently.

The overall theme of the conference “The Future Board” acknowledged that boards are now expected to be more accountable and to a broader range of stakeholders, not just focus purely on making a profit.  In particular, this was the first time I can remember when climate change came up more than once, recognising that this is something that we must all tackle urgently.

The keynote panel (Karl George, The Governance Forum, Jane Fahey, Transferwise, Chris Hodge, ICSA, Susan Hooper, Uber, Colin Mayer, University of Oxford) on Wednesday focussed on “The Future Board” and asked what the board of the future should look like.  This discussion, and many others over the 2 days acknowledged that to meet future challenges we need to do things differently.  This includes increasing diversity of our boards to ensure that there is more diversity in decision making.  In the “Harnessing creativity and diversity of thought” panel (David Gracie, KPMG, Deborah Gilshan, The 100% Club, Neil Tsappis, Demyst Board Sciences) the concept of cognitive diversity, where a team of people genuinely think differently, was introduced.  It was stressed that we cannot wait until we’ve dealt with everything else and then embrace diversity.  If we wait, we will not be set up to take the best decisions in difficult times, such as on how to tackle the climate emergency.

Yet, one of the keynote addresses on Tuesday was by Denise Wilson OBE, Chief Executive, Hampton-Alexander Review.  She noted that while progress has been made in diversity on boards and senior teams, there is a lot more to do.  We must not rest on our laurels either – some appear to be taking a step backwards.

Of course, if you have a non diverse board who all think the same, it is likely to be a pretty harmonious group.  The introduction of real diversity is going to make the board’s more challenging to manage for the Chair, the CEO and of most interest to us, the Governance Professional.  To do this we as individuals will have to be in good shape, resilient and leading high performing teams.  Here again, the conference programme delivered.

Terry Simpkin (Managing Director, Mischief Business Engineering) gave an excellent presentation on “Personal empowerment: combatting the imposter syndrome”.  70% of us will experience this at some point and contrary to common belief men are as likely to experience it as women.  It can help explain the lack of traction in the diversity agenda and impacts our personal lives and the workplace.  The good news is that it is learned so we can unlearn it. Actions include examining our internal stories and how they serve us, taking action to change them and doimg so repeatedly.  This is not easy and you can seek help from a coach to help you do so.  Also, we can call it out in others (carefully) to help them overcome it.

As previously referenced, Professor Sir Cary Cooper delivered a fascinating presentation about “The costs, sources and strategies to enhance mental wellbeing at work”.  A straw poll in the room illustrated how many of us work after hours, check emails last thing at night and whilst on holiday.  He illustrated the negative impact that this behaviour is having on individual and organisational health as well as UK productivity and GDP.  He also demonstrated how creating a wellbeing culture can contribute positively to the bottom line.  We owe it to ourselves and to our organisations to take this seriously.  But we also need to ensure we are not the cause of the ill health of those who work for us.  This means working on our EQ and leadership skills.  If we do all this we will be better placed to meet the challenges ahead.

In the “Company Secretary as a Changemaker” panel session the panel (Justine Lutterodt, Centre for Synchronous Leadership, Karina Bye, Aviva, Rachel Rees, GIA, Jeremy Small, AXA) discussed how the company secretary is the ideal changemaker.  We can challenge and change things without losing trust and can be relied on take the long term view, something that is necessary now more than ever before.

The 2019 Conference provided another thought provoking two days which really got me thinking about the Future Board and the role of the Governance Professional in this.  In one session it was suggested that the Governance Professional should act more as an Internal Consultant.  In another it was suggested that the job should be one of Chief Corporate Governance Officer.  There is no doubt that Governance Professionals have a key role in the future.