INSEAD Participant Interview
Looking at the future development of boards
Leading from Chair: Building the skills for the next stage of your career
Rowena Ironside, chair and co-founder of Women on Boards UK, on the leading-edge thinking, the tools, insights and frameworks that Leading from the Chair delivers to address the exciting and manifold challenges ahead.
What are the principal challenges that face chairs of boards today?
Ask Rowena Ironside, Executive Chair and co-founder of Women on Boards UK Ltd, and she’ll tell you that they fall into three critical areas: managing time, managing information asymmetry and ensuring the board is adding value to the organisation.
“When you are chairing a board, there’s an imperative to make the best possible use of limited board time to ensure you’re talking about the right things and facilitating productive discussions. Then there’s the challenge of bridging the knowledge gap between executives who are executing the day-to-day strategy of a business, and the non-executive board members whose exposure to the organisation is limited to one or two days each month. ”
In corollary, there is a “human complexity” that can act as an obstacle to contributing effectively.
“For boards to succeed, they have to be seen by management as an asset and not just another layer of authority – another ‘boss’ that needs to be catered to. For chairs and for non-execs, the challenge is in ensuring that the organisation gets the most from the board and that we are actually adding value.”
And Ironside has an abundance of experience in navigating these challenges. In addition to Women on Boards, she is a non-executive director at Digital Catapult, the UK’s foremost advanced digital technology innovation centre, and a non-executive board member for the Cabinet Office Constitution Group. She has also held a number of non-executive directorships and advisory roles across a range of organisations and sectors, from healthcare to technology, science, academia and government. Hers is a four-decade career that has taken her to the “top of the tree” in organisational terms, and that has been steadfastly driven by an interest in taking on big challenges and getting outside of the comfort zone.”
The same need brought her to INSEAD and the Leading from the Chair programme in 2019.
“We enjoy a strong strategic relationship with INSEAD at Women on Boards, through our shared commitment to ensuring more gender diversity within leadership and governance programmes. Additionally, colleagues had taken INSEAD’s International Directors Programme, so I had strong word-of-mouth insight into the calibre of faculty and the kind of impact a programme at this level can deliver. Specifically I was looking for exposure to the latest, leading-edge thinking on corporate governance, a topic that has been a focus for me over the last seven years. I also wanted the challenge of sharing and interchanging perspectives with peers from diverse backgrounds. And an opportunity to be pushed outside of my comfort zone.”
The programme, she says, ticked all of these boxes. And more.
From the “fun” of exploring inter-personal dynamics through the lens of the performing arts, to role-playing a board session and observing how different individuals chaired the same discussion, the experience helped consolidate knowledge while giving her a unique opportunity to frame concepts and unpick the dynamics of best practice.
“A good example is the term ‘information asymmetry’ which works well as a framework for better understanding one of the challenges we face as non-execs on the board. And there were other frameworks that have really helped me going forward. We were challenged to explore the six to eight things a chair needs to focus on – such as how to frame the kind of discussion that results in good decisions – and then unpicking how a really good chair goes about these things.”
Leading from the Chair has armed Ironside with insights and tools that she can leverage for the next stage of her career, she says. As an investment in personal effectiveness going forward, she describes the programme as second to none.
“Looking at my future as a board member, there are plenty more challenges on the horizon. In general, as a society, we need to move away from the historic model of male, white and middle-aged and pursue much greater diversity in age, ethnicity and gender in the board room. We also need to broaden our scope in terms of the topics we discuss. Historically finance, risk and compliance have held centre stage, but moving forward I believe we will need to sharpen our focus on talent – which is now much more of a constraint on future success in many organisations – and pressing issues like cyber-security and the climate emergency.”
The INSEAD experience has empowered her with new understanding and frameworks to address these future challenges and more.
“With increasing global complexity, I believe that boards should take a more active role in determining strategy and other questions that are too important to simply delegate to management. We are looking at exciting, changing times and I aim to continue leading boards for the next 10 to 15 years. Leading from the Chair has helped me to build the skills I will need for this next stage in my career.”
Find out more about the Leading from the Chair programme.