The year 2020 was not conducive to reading many books. On Board: The Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life In The Boardroom by Sir John Tusa was an interesting choice having spent the hectic year mainly working on .. my boards.
The book has nine chapters, of which seven deal with a range of arts, culture, and education organisations, including one in the United States, where Sir John served on boards in various capacities from non-executive director to executive chairman. Each of these seven chapters ends with a summary of key takeaways from that board. Two other chapters are reflections on governance.
For each of these chapters Sir John has interviewed some of his former colleagues for a more accurate record of their shared experiences. Each chapter varies in the themes covered and the chapters together cover a lot of ground e.g. board and executive team succession, board papers, who is invited to and indeed disinvited from board meetings, CEO hiring, Chairman-CEO relationship, board culture, how board meetings are run, strategic decision making at board level, managing disagreements to name a few. The book is however light on discussing inclusion on boards and, understandably, some of the more modern themes in board rooms. The story telling is good and holds one’s attention. Occasionally there are bits that will make more seasoned directors wince in recognition e.g. person A has not spoken with person B in a decade since that last bust-up. Ouch. Never gratuitous, these bits I feel humanise the book further.
The chapters on UAL and Clore Leadership Programme particularly interested me – the former because I serve on a higher education board and the latter because it is about building governance in a start-up albeit one quite different from the kind I advise, have built, or have worked in (and written about in some posts such as here and here).
Reading this book in 2020, as a relatively newly minted non-exec board director, it struck me how much the governance context has changed — e.g. in how hiring of non-exec board directors is slowly but steadily changing to be more transparent and open — and yet how little the governance context has changed — e.g. in how the key challenge remains not to lean on the skills or credentials on a board but to manage the “human complexities of board interactions“, to quote Sir John, which are tricky to codify. That delicate duality of plus ça change makes this book useful and relevant even if you are a non-exec not serving in the arts, culture, or education sectors.
All in all, a good read over 5-6 well-spent hours.
Star rating: 5 out of 5
Usefulness note: Non-exec directors, current or aspiring, serving in any sector at all.
(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director.)