Board Evolution: The need for strong communication

Board Evolution: The need for strong communication
Published: 1 June 2021

At Berwick Partners we have recently undertaken a research project looking at ‘Board Evolution’. From our conversations with numerous CEOs, NEDs and Chairs, we have been able to highlight five areas which will be critical to the evolution of boards as we move out of the COVID-19 crisis: board structure, the importance of business culture, a focus on diversity & inclusion, the need for strong communication and the growing pressures of ESG and sustainability. Here we look at the need for strong communication…


Channels of communication have changed extensively over the last 18 months; during our conversations it was clear that channels such as Zoom and Teams have made meetings more efficient and decision making, at board level, more streamlined. Many spoke of the relationship between the Board and Non-Execs – whilst some say online communication tools has increased the opportunity to develop the relationship between the two, others felt that there was still work to be done in order for the Board to harness the value of NEDs.

The importance of open and clear communication across the whole business has never been greater to unite the workforce on a clear sense of purpose. Board Advisor, Peter Thomas spoke passionately about the value of EQ and actively listening in order to become a better leader. Most of the leaders that we spoke to talked about the importance of maintaining the human element of communication; whilst there are many benefits to the new ‘online’ world, in a more dispersed workforce the ability to spot other issues with colleagues has potentially been lost.

What the leaders had to say…

When external investors become involved, the role of a founder needs to be crystal clear. How often do new investors dare to articulate the founder’s role?

Sonia Davies, CEO of PE-backed Leisure Business

Relationship between the ExCo and Non-Exec Committee needs to change. The value of NEDs is huge and is largely never maximised. They are active observers of your business who can make excellent mentors to your ExCo members. Do not be worried about their time commitments; just ask the question! They are naturally inquisitive people, who are often waiting for that invitation to asked in further.

Jo Butler, Chief People Officer of PLC Retailer

The way in which we now communicate is having a positive effect on Boards.  Zoom makes Board Meetings more efficient, focussed and with greater clarity which is allowing the Non-Execs to get a greater understanding of the business.  It is also allowing for more communication between the Board and Exco outside of formal meetings. Overall, this will lead to a faster pace of decision making. Board members will need to keep up with this.

I would like to think that the relationship between the Exec and non-exec will improve. Technology and the increase in communication could allow the board to become more informed and take on a more understanding position of the Exec. They could be more sympathetic and supportive to the Exec.  Equally they can be more challenging as they understand the business more clearly

Ian Penrose, NED Chair CEO

Good communication from the leadership team is key. For instance, when a business planned its furlough strategy and decided what action it needed to take, it is important that the organisation understood where the leadership team is coming from. Even if the decisions are not popular, good employee communications can help them understand why change has happened and will help maintain their respect for the business.

Having the values of fairness and honesty are essential – you need to treat everyone the same and be transparent with your decisions.

Tim Cooper, NED, Renold Plc & Pressure Technologies Plc

There are a lot of ingredients to consider here: politics, dynamics and personalities. You absolutely need a strong Chairman for a dynamic CEO. If an NED were to try to tell a CEO how to do his job he would kick back.

The NED’s need to provide positive challenge and advice to the leadership team and let them lead the business. A good NED knows where the balance is and will add value with their experience – and often this is about going back to basics or a deep understanding of a particular subject.

Rob Fenwick, Chief Risk Officer, Howdens Plc

Companies and people have both been challenged in the current climate and it has been very noticeable the shift to manage in a more dispersed organisation – something that is here to stay. Many have managed to step up to the challenge and adapted, but others will have fared much worse and will struggle to adapt in the new world. This places a further emphasis on strong people managers with an ability to demonstrate an ability to bind and harness remote teams whilst also having the ability to spot issues that are not as easy when done via video call, etc as opposed to in person. All about communication.

Heather Benjamin, Chair of Air Ambulance UK and experienced NED across multiple sectors

Leaders and boards need to ensure there is clear communication across the organisation. This is something I learnt early on in my career the importance of sitting down and listening to people to engage them for the long term. In the current operating climate, organisations and leaders need to ensure they are communicating effectively and find ways of keeping their team and employees engaged. These are all built around crucial communication skills.

Malcolm Harrison, CEO CIPS

It is nevermore essential for the CEO to communicate a clear sense of purpose and certainty of action – this is not knowing how to resolve the issues, but a certainty of purpose in tackling them. The one certainty is that if there is a sense of panic in a business, the people who leave will be those good enough to get jobs elsewhere! So, communications need to focus upon a sense of belonging, alongside clarity and intent of purpose. If the comms are off, it’s your people, your stock price, your investors who are immediately affected.

Harry Reilly – Chairman, multiple Chair & NED

I have championed for a long time EQ - my last article on LinkedIn has been around being better leaders and better humans. As my evolution as a leader and CEO, I have made many mistakes and said the wrong things many times. An Exec Chair pulled me up once to listen more and take opinions on board more actively.

Peter Thomas – Interim SME CEO & Board Advisor

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