'No place for age barriers in boardrooms' - UK's leading NED
One of the UK’s mostly highly rated non-executive directors (NEDs) has insisted there’s no place for age barriers in company boardrooms.
Earlier this year Dianne Walker won the Sunday Times ‘NED to Watch Award’ dedicated to the memory of legendary businesswoman and former chief executive of the Economist Dame Helen Alexander.
Walker is one of a number of non-executive directors to respond to an article in BusinessCloud which asked whether NEDs needed to be younger because their average age in FTSE-listed companies was now more than 60.
“I fail to see why there should be age barriers in any boardroom,” she said. “Tech companies shouldn’t preclude older NEDs, however, I am a supporter of the concept of younger NEDs but have yet to see that being brought into practice.
“The tech sector is obviously where younger people corner the market in terms of specific knowledge and IP, as well as industry networking. It’s a shame that younger NEDs aren’t more prevalent.”
A former accountant at PwC she was credited with helping transform the fortunes of Preston-based bakery Bako North Western, which was struggling under the strain of several acquisitions.
She is also a non-executive at chemicals manufacturer Scott Bader, Liverpool-based bid winning consultancy M62 Vincis as well as being an audit committee member at the North Wales Police Force. She’s also a business mentor at Tech Manchester.
“I believe boards benefit from a mix of skills and experience, including what might be termed ‘a safe pair of hands’, bringing ‘corporate memory’, as well as those NEDs with insight and experience particularly of the modern digital landscape,” added Walker.
“The combined input of energy and experience should provide companies with refreshed strategic thinking and up-to-date skill sets at the board table. At the end of the day though, the board has legal responsibilities, with strong governance necessarily underpinning its activities; typically, that governance requires the oversight and input of (some) ‘time-served’ professionals with backgrounds in the professions such as finance and law.
“Nevertheless, I do think that the network of the older NEDs itself needs to expand and move away from the perceived ‘tag-team’ arrangements which have led us to a situation where the NED positions in the UK’s listed companies have been concentrated in a relatively small group of NEDs, with average tenures in excess of six years.”
Walker described the role of a NED to offer ‘independent and objective oversight’ as well as ‘friendly but robust challenge’.
Her views are echoed by Martin Keelagher, who at 33 is already a director of Agile Automations; Security Access Systems; CNi Solutions; Lazarus Fitness; a non-executive director of PR Cavalry and KeyGeni; and the chairman of Kidscan Children's Cancer Research.
In 2012 he launched his own venture capital and advisory business, Walford Cunningham and Hayes, to work with a number of SMEs to help grow and develop them as both a director and NED.
“As a NED, you are not part of the day-to-day running of the business, you offer the ‘helicopter view point’,” he said. “Being able to be one stepped removed, allows you to see the ‘wood for the trees’ and truly add value through offering guidance and support to the business; often as much on a personal level as a professional one.
“Business and indeed the life of an entrepreneur, can be a very lonely place at times and a good non-executive director offers that sounding board and additional support that you require at times.”
Keelagher said talent and not age is crucial to being a successful NED.
“The key is that really, you have to be able to add value to the proposition through your experience, that experience can come from a number of aspects, though obviously needs to be offered from a point of authority and knowledge,” he said. “Personally, I am a big believer in a diverse, well rounded board, that can work well together and complement each other’s skill sets.
“I would actually hope that businesses would be more open to taking on younger NEDs, to their organisation, I think that this will be something that we see more as time goes on and the UK economy is required to seek out its new competitive advantage on the world stage, call upon the expertise of those individuals around as, will help significantly.”
Entrepreneur Sarah Fatchett is 48 and a non-executive director with North West-based Dr Fertility, which is a one-stop destination to support people on their fertility journey.
She’s the founder of 365 Response, an award-winning software services organisation with around approximately 50 staff based in offices in Wakefield and Leicester.
Fatchett said NEDs need to be honest. “There are not a lot of things that come up now in the start-up health tech world that I have not personally come across or learnt about,” she said. “Sharing the good, bad and ugly and being brutally honest can help the directors avoid mistakes.
“I offer a sounding board for different ideas, reality checks to support the team that it is ok when bumps come in the road and some thinking time to talk through how to respond.
“A key part of my role is challenge and assurance - helping the team to think about the balance of regulatory must do's versus the excitement and passion for getting on with the new ideas. This is important to get right - making early mistakes in safe delivery in health technology has a huge reputation and service cost.
“Most of all I am there to work as part of the team and get the growth through idea sharing, networking and hard work. It is a balancing act as I need to stay independent to ensure the challenge part of the role is always there. It is a brilliant job and the fit between the NED and the founders has to be right and trusted.”
Fatchett said age should not to be the deciding factor in appointing a non-executive director.
“Much more important is what have you done, how many years of experience do you offer, are you authentic in your sector, do you have real knowledge, do you have time to commit (a big reason why the age profile is higher) and will you be the right personality for the team?” she said.
“I think NEDs should not outstay their value contribution and there should be some churn and fit for each stage of the growth. I do think traditional models of boards need to open up to more fluidity and wider advisory approaches but this is not an age thing - more of a model change and busting the older board models.
“It drives me crackers when I look at a board and see a wall of white men in suits in their 40/50/60s. It is such a sigh moment. There is so much more out there to get from all sectors and this is the path to real value creation.”