bckr | “The corporate world needs high calibre people providing good advice” – Paul Skinner
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“The corporate world needs high calibre people providing good advice” – Paul Skinner

“The corporate world needs high calibre people providing good advice” – Paul Skinner

We were pleased to welcome Paul Skinner to BCKR in January – a highly experienced chairman and non-executive director who, following his executive career at Shell, quickly established himself in the portfolio world. He chaired diverse private and public sector organisations such as Rio Tinto, Infrastructure UK, the Commonwealth Business Council and the UK Chamber of Shipping.

Paul is currently Chair of Defence Equipment and Support, a trading entity within the Ministry of Defence, responsible for the UK’s defence procurement. He is also a NED of Standard Chartered plc, Air Liquide, S.A. and of Tetra Lavel Group and sits on the Public Interest Body of PWC and the Advisory Body of Norton Rose Fulbright LLP.

He started by sharing with us his very positive attitude to lawyers, who have helped him out many times – which is always good to hear!

Here is a summary of his talk:

Lawyers get a bad and cynical press in business circles which is unfair but perhaps inevitably as their role generally entails:

Complexity vs simplicity

Abhorring error vs the 80:20 approach of business leaders
Risk averse vs risk takers
Identifying problems vs finding solutions

Paul feels this is an unreasonably binary approach. The legal brand has been somewhat characterised in that way – and this in turn conspires against opportunities for lawyers on the on boards in public companies. There is a bias against lawyers because of the type of work and career they’ve had throughout their lives, but don’t be deterred by that.

A key question to ask yourself is ‘how can I find a solution to this particular problem?’

What transferable skills do lawyers have for boards?

• analytical capability,
• good balanced judgement
• high sensitivity to public interest
• good understanding of risk
All these are important skills for boards to have when trying to do the right thing.

How does the appointment process work?
When you are recruiting NEDs, you will clearly form views on the individual and interpersonal issues (team player, getting on with others etc.) in early contact but it is always encouraging to see whether someone has taken the trouble to do a little homework to find out what the main issues are in the company, and whether he/she has thoughts on those issues. Third degree due diligence is not a good idea, but showing genuine effort and interest is worthwhile.

What is the value of networking and how do you go about it?
BCKR is a good opportunity for networking, as are many other events such as those that the Accountants and headhunters do. But also the public sector and the public policy space give access to networking opportunities and the work is also very interesting. Paul spent four years leading a major Government infrastructure programme and more recently has done work for the MOD. Public sector issues are much more complex than anything he found coming to the board of Shell, so don’t underestimate the issues.

How to you prepare/present yourself for the boardroom?

A good CV is very important. Who your referees are is also very important. Someone known and respected who can speak well of your board skills or career experience is very useful. It provides some degree of differentiation from other candidates. If an individual is presented to them in a positive way, the headhunters may be more minded to help.

There is a great need in the corporate world for high calibre people who can provide good advice to companies.

Paul’s bridge into his Advisory Council role at the Treasury was an introduction from Mervyn Davies, who he had known when they were both on the board of Standard Chartered. Paul was sceptical at the beginning but the role has opened up a completely different world to him.

If public policy interests you then you should look into it. You can play yourself into the public sector world through the Cabinet Office networking connection opportunities, making sure you have thought through what you can and what you want to contribute.

The MOD board now feels very like a normal corporate board in terms of practice, drumbeat and issues covered. With a good Chairman, Secretary of State, and Permanent Secretary the NEDs are seen as a help, not as a hindrance. Ian Cheshire (former chairman of Kingfisher) is now overseeing all the independent NEDs in these types of NED roles in Government departments.

Q&A
Have you sat on any boards that contained lawyers?
Yes, and they have tended to bring something very specific to the party. Standard Chartered had Ruth Markland on the board, she was the former Asian lead at Freshfields. In a regulatory environment which was very challenging, having someone who could pick through the details in a thoughtful and rational way was a huge asset. Lawyers have also performed well on boards he’s sat on in France and Australia. In those and other countries, the tradition of having lawyers on boards is more established; perhaps the profession is more respected.

To make yourself more attractive to the headhunter is it important to have had a senior management role or to be at the coalface?
He wouldn’t say that the managing partner role is necessarily better starting point than the “passionate problem solving lawyer”.
He has seen leading corporate practitioners who are very passionate and have so much to contribute. Senior management have different experience in business leadership. One is not better than the other.

What are your thoughts on the perceived need for industry/operating experience?
This is a narrow point of view. Partly a general perception that need resetting. There is of course a need for relevant skills and experience but actually you need to ensure the board has the right balance of viewpoints. A ‘controlled contrarian’ is one of the best people to have on a board.

He wants people that can be relied upon to think through the full range of options so chairmen and headhunters should be thinking in much wider terms than the traditional requirement for ‘operational’ experience. Diversity in terms of skills, as well as a range of nationalities is a real plus, as well as in gender terms.

Have you sat on any boards with lawyers on?
Yes, and they have tended to bring something very specific to the party. Standard Chartered had Ruth Markland on it, former Asian lead at Freshfields. In a regulatory environment which was very challenging, having someone who could pick through that in a thoughtful and rational way was a huge asset. Lawyers have also performed well on boards he’s sat on in France and Australia. In those and other countries, the tradition of having lawyers on boards is more established, perhaps the profession is more respected.

To make yourself more attractive to the headhunter is it important to have had a senior management role or to be at the coal face?
He wouldn’t say that the managing partner role is necessarily better starting point than the passionate problem solving lawyer.

He has seen leading corporate practitioners who are very passionate and have so much to contribute. Senior management have different experience in business leadership. One is not better than the other.

What are your thoughts on the perceived need for industry/operating experience?
This is a narrow point of view. Partly a general perception that need resetting. There is of course a need for relevant skills and experience but actually you need to ensure the board has the right balance of view points. A controlled contrarian is one of the best people to have on a board.

He wants people that can be relied upon to think through the full range of options so chairmen and headhunters should be thinking in much wider terms than the traditional requirement for ‘operational’ experience. Diversity in skills and nationality is a real plus.

But in the process itself politics will play their part. Make sure you know the nomination committee and know why you might fit. Make it clear that you want to connect and have the enthusiasm and time to do this.