Board Evolution: An interview with Marnie Millard OBE

Board Evolution: An interview with Marnie Millard OBE
Published: 9 March 2021

Board Evolution – Berwick Partners are currently undertaking a series of interviews with business leaders, to understand how they and their Boards have adapted and reacted to the increasing complexities of the world in which we operate. We are examining the importance of leadership DNA and the behaviours, traits and skills that are vital to an evolving Board.

As part of the research, Berwick Partners spoke to Marnie Millard OBE. Marnie has a broad perspective from which to draw, as she is Chair of the Board UA92 (University Academy ’92), President of the British Soft Drinks Association, Non-Executive Director at Finsbury Foods, and from 2013-2020 was Chief Executive of Nichols PLC (Vimto). 

What is the ideal structure for a future proofed Board/Exco? Should it represent any functions it does not already? 

I’ll draw on my experience from Nichols, an AIM listed PLC. Traditionally the Board consists of your CEO and CFO plus NED’s. I’ve always invited members of the Ex-co leadership team to present to the Board on their area of specialism. This helps with the development of future Board members and enables Non-Exec’s to get a better understanding of the business.

ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) has become increasingly important for organisations. Rather than being a ‘tick in the box’ ESG must be central to an organisations purpose, as such it was an area I championed at Nichols. Good corporate governance is a given in corporate Britain today. Equally environment has become entrenched in our psyche. The younger generation of today have grown up with a deep understanding of human impact on our planet. At Nichols we were acutely aware of the role we played and built strategies that would mitigate our negative impact on the environment. 

The ‘social’ element of ESG has come to the fore in the pandemic, specifically how organisations treat their employees. Adherence to government guidelines is not enough, we must be more human in our approach. The pandemic has given a better insight into our colleagues lives (we can literally see into their homes via zoom). We now have a much better understanding of their lives outside of work. Organisations that have greater respect for their employees mental (not just physical) welfare, more freedom to balance their work and lives will engender employee’s loyalty. 

At Nichols, our ‘Happier Future’ goal gave us the framework to grow our business by doing the right things in the right way. The ‘Happier Future’ strategy outlined the ways in which we work with our partners and for our communities so that “we make life taste better” for everyone. Since leaving Nichols our HRD has taken over the ESG reins from me. Chis is ex Unilever and PZ Cussons, so she has a deep understanding of the subject, as well as a genuine passion for the area. ESG could sit with any senior leader in the business, but it must be someone who cares deeply about the subject, is curious to understand what more can be done and has a voice. 

How can companies develop talent to better equip Board / Exco members of the future?

Companies must interrogate the capability of their board and ensure they have implemented appropriate development plans for future talent. Future talent planning needs to be scheduled into Board meetings to ensure it gets appropriate focus. At Nichols we set ourselves the target of having at least one internal candidate for every senior role. 

One of the biggest challenges is giving the future talent of the organisation the opportunity to broaden their skills outside of their traditional skill set. We found this worked effectively when we moved our UK Sales Director into a Group Operations Director role. Whilst they did not have a deep understanding of operations, they brought a relentless customer focus. Their diversity of thought challenged the way we engaged with our suppliers and helped to put the customer at the very core of our business.

The challenge can be in creating a ‘psychological safe space’ for someone to move out of their comfort zone and into a new area. Providing permission to try new things (and sometimes fail) can be very powerful. Communication with the rest of the business is vital as there will be confusion as to why these lateral moves have been made. At Nichols we made a number of these lateral moves, so it became engrained in the organisations psyche that we would support our colleagues to develop in new areas. 

The impact of COVID has been greater than we ever anticipated. How are you seeing leader evolve in the crisis, and what skills and behaviours do you think will endure? 

There have been cases in the press recently of business leaders of the UK’s largest organisations really misjudging what their colleagues and society expects in today’s world. Leaders must engender trust in their employees and put people (both employees and customers) at the very heart of their business. But this stuff can’t be faked. As a leader you need to believe in this deeply and ‘walk the talk’. Leaders must genuinely need to consider what contribution their organisation makes to society. 

Do current Boards / Exco allow for nimble market response?

UA92 faced a challenge with the pandemic. We had students and employees to safeguard, accommodation and buildings issues to assess, and switch to online learning. As Non-Executive Chair I had a responsibility to ensure the organisation felt safe to make the changes it needed to. This meant giving the leadership team the confidence to take calculated risks and to empower the individuals to think differently. The acceptance that ‘some things will go wrong’ is essential, but individuals need to feel confident that they will not be blamed. As Chief Executive or Chair you need to take responsibility for the whole organisation, and let your team know that you are right beside them. 

The pandemic has put a huge pressure on business and organisational leaders. How can the Board best support leadership teams?

The welfare of the Ex-co should be a real concern to Non-Execs. The role of Chief Executive can be a lonely place at times, and for those business leaders navigating the challenges of the pandemic, caring for their employees, and managing their own non-work obligations the last year will have taken a real toll. 

A good Non-Exec can be a tremendous support. I have been fortunate to work with many of them. As a Non-Exec myself I know that you want to shoulder some of the responsibility for the Chief Executive, but that’s not your role. A great Non-Exec makes time for the CEO and exco outside of formal meetings to act as a sounding Board. Setting up a coffee / lunch with no agenda to allow the CEO to discuss their challenges can be huge help and can make you far more effective as a Non-Executive. It is no longer acceptable to be the type of Non-Exec that just reads the Board papers on the train on the Board meeting. The Non-Exec of today needs to play a far greater role in supporting the leadership team, whilst also minding the interests of the shareholders. The two are not mutually exclusive.

For more information, please ccontact our Financial Leadership Practice.

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