I attended a headhunters’ lunch recently where guests included that rare breed: a woman director.
The exotic creature was none other than Elizabeth Vallance, wife of former BT
chairman Sir Iain. She steps down later this year from the board of Aviva after
10 years as a non-executive director.
Although I have interviewed a few chairmen and chief executives over the
years, I have never sat in on a board meeting. I would love to be a
fly-on-the-wall observing different management styles in action. Chairmen are
typically either dictatorial (think Robert Maxwell) or conciliatory, but it is
hard for outsiders to gauge how things work in practice.
Running a company, rather than a board, is a different matter. Where the
chairman is more ‘big picture’, the chief executive tends to be very focused –
obsessive, even – and driven by numbers and results. Yet their style can have a
critical bearing on a company’s morale and performance.
Consider two examples: Bob Ayling and Jonathan Bloomer. Both are intelligent,
capable men who somehow never clicked on the PR front. Many of Ayling’s
decisions at British Airways – such as revamping Club World on transatlantic
routes – eventually came good, but he endured a terrible press. His lawyer’s
manner saw him cast as a cold figure, when in fact he has a warm side.
Bloomer suffered a similar problem as chief executive of the Prudential. He
was on a hiding to nothing, with shareholder disquiet over a £1bn rights issue.
Yet those few close to him describe him as sensitive and capable.
Running a company, let alone a board, is never going to be easy. But, so
often, public perceptions can add immeasurably to the burden. Future bosses:
Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times