UK: Conference; Condensed

Last Updated: 26 July 2019
Article by Peter Swabey

A roundup of personal highlights from the 2019 Annual Conference

I thoroughly enjoyed our conference on 9th and 10th July and, judging by the feedback, so did the overwhelming majority of the more than a thousand people who were there. I know that, for all sorts of reasons, many of you couldn’t be with us. We will cover some of the conference sessions in this and future editions of Governance and Compliance but I thought that I should give you my own impressions of two days at ExCeL London.

It was the elder von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army in the 19th Century, who commented that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” and I was reminded of this on our first morning, when our first keynote speaker was delayed by ‘trouble oop north’ or, at least, trouble on the Northern Line and we had to change the batting order. But that was no bad thing as the conference got an inspiring start from Denise Wilson, Chief Executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review talking about the review’s work on boardroom diversity. We got a great speech – so much so that we have asked her to turn it into an article for a future edition – passionately delivered. Denise was ably followed by Sanu de Lima, Deputy Director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who stepped in at short notice when Kelly Tolhurst MP was detained on ministerial business.

I was particularly pleased to see Dr Elisabeth Marx and Professor Randall Peterson launch our report on A view at the top: boardroom trends in Britain’s FTSE 100 Companies, which we will cover in more detail in a future edition. This was one of three pieces of thought leadership that we launched at the conference, all of which are available from our website. A view at the top compared boards over a twenty year period revealing some significant changes and some perhaps even more significant similarities. I also enjoyed the discussion between Dottie Schindlinger from Diligent, and Clare Wardle of Coca-Cola European Partners on what boards are really doing about ESG and climate change. Interestingly, it seems, more than we might think. This will be one of our themes for the year and tied in very well with another – boardroom diversity. This was the subject of another piece of work that we have done with Diligent and launched at the conference – our report on Building a Balanced Board, which extends the themes covered in my article in the June/July 2019 magazine.

At the start of the second day. I was reminded of von Moltke again as, just as we were about to begin, the fire alarm went off and we all started to troop towards the car park. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, promptly resolved, and we carried on with an opening keynote from Sir James Wates, which I thought was a masterpiece of clarity in explaining why business, well done, is good for society. He also added some thoughts about the importance of the role of the company secretary which I was very pleased to hear.

The rest of the day followed a similar pattern to the first, with a succession of speakers and panels. The first was a panel on The Future Board, which reflected another report that we launched at the conference, asking whether the traditional model of the board is capable of meeting the expectations we now place on it, and is it the most efficient way of doing so? And is there a need for radical thinking about what boards do and what they look like to equip them for the future?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper was brilliant on enhancing mental wellbeing at work, and I enjoyed Dr Tracy Long and Claire Davies’ contributions to our session on improving board evaluation. We are now reviewing the responses that we received to our consultation – many thanks to all those who responded – and I will provide an update next month.

Afternoon breakout sessions included a fascinating update on cyber security issues led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with support from the National Cyber Security Centre and Metropolitan Police, Professor Terry McNulty talking about his new research on how the courts apply the concept of business judgment and to what extent directors’ decisions should be subject to review by the courts, and a fascinating session on career options for governance professionals.

Finally, some sad news, we do not run obituaries in the magazine, but I was personally sad to hear of the deaths recently of Jack Lyon FCIS, Chartered Secretary and survivor of the Great Escape, Jack Wratten FCIS, formerly registrar of BP and founder of the ICSA Registrar’s Group, and Peter Montagnon FCIS, a corporate governance leader at both the Association of British Insurers and the Institute for Business Ethics, who wrote an article for the magazine before his passing. RIP.

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