Take BP, for instance, whose former executives hold commanding positions in British business. Chris Gibson-Smith, chairman of the Stock Exchange, Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, and John Buchanan, non-executive director of three FTSE100 companies, all worked together at BP. It is natural that they should pick up the phone to talk to one another.
A fourth member of the BP ‘club’ is Bryan Sanderson, chairman of Standard Chartered. A fifth is Peter Sutherland, the former WTO chief who has been BP’s chairman since 1997.
They in turn look to former BP chairmen such as David Simon, later Lord Simon of Highbury.
On paper, it makes for a formidable clique. Yet, as far as I can tell, the ‘club’ is secondary to talent. Having met a few BP alumni, it would appear you need the intelligence of Einstein to scale the heights of that organisation.
Former BP executives carry the association like a badge of honour – or old school tie – but it is their skills that win them directorships.
There was undoubtedly a time when the chairman’s ‘slightly dim second cousin’ would be given a seat on the board. I associate that sort of thing with the 60s and 70s. Certainly it would never be tolerated today; at least in our bigger companies.
Familiar names do still come up in board appointments, but the talent pool is slowly widening. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times