CEO, St. Luke’s, London
Board Director, St. Luke’s, London
Interview by Angela Leaney, Women In The Boardroom
Neil’s keys to success:
- The journey to the boardroom can be inextricably linked with ascent to the management team and executive function of your own employer.
- The function and composition of a board can evolve with the changing nature of the company, so prepare to be flexible. Or even create one from scratch.
- Placing the interests of the company before that of any individual, including yourself, is an essential lesson to learn.
Neil, tell me how did your journey to the boardroom as a corporate director begin?
Like many ad folks, I dreamed of running an agency. As it turned out, running the agency I was at became the opportunity to own it as well – and being a board director was an inevitable part of that process. When I was made MD, the agency was facing a downturn. Before then, there hadn’t been an effective board, so establishing one was a much needed part of bringing discipline and aligned decision-making to the company. The key to the board’s effectiveness was reducing the numbers to only those who were genuinely affecting the fortunes of the company. Previously, there had been a management team made up of people who were included mostly because of their level. We abandoned this set-up in favor of a much smaller team who were responsible for making the really tough decisions. At that point, we needed to downsize the company and had to limit the number of people involved in the difficult discussions about cost-cutting. The business has grown massively, but we have stuck to a small, lean board, which has kept us agile and focused.
As CEO I work very hard on communicating with the senior, non-board members and ensuring they are deeply involved in projects and negotiations around key specific challenges. This way they feel fully involved in helping forge the future of the company whilst maintaining the focus we enjoy with a smaller board.
We are developing a new management team, membership of which is dictated first and foremost by the individual’s impact on the success of the business. This team, with its very tight remit, will report to the board.
What personal characteristic do you believe was the critical factor in your successful candidacy for your first board appointment?
There is a difference between good people and the people who fundamentally affect the fortunes of the company. I was achieving game changing results for the company, through winning substantial accounts and creating commercially rewarding long term relationships.
What has surprised you about the reality of board service versus the expectations that you had coming in?
St. Luke’s is a privately held independent creative agency, owned and run by the management team, so for me, being on the board means really running the company. And that means dealing with conflict and translating it into enthusiastic alignment. This can mean some very tough conversations where you are relying on your judgement, your planning and your leadership ability to drive the necessary changes while taking others with. It’s not just about doing a good job. It’s about creating a new reality for everyone.
What have you learned about yourself through serving as a corporate board director – how have you grown?
I’ve learned to balance toughness with understanding and motivational drive. Placing the interests of the company ahead of the interests of its people – including yourself – is a vital lesson.
What is your favorite leadership quote or style that has inspired you on this journey?
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his team used to talk about “gripping” an issue until it was sorted. It captures the sense of relentless focus that is often needed.
Neil Henderson is CEO of St. Luke’s, the UK’s #1 creative agency for financial management and profitability. Check them out here.
Views From The Boardroom is an exclusive series from Women In The Boardroom, where corporate board directors share their experience, insight and wisdom and their view from the boardroom. Corporate board directors interested in participating should email firstname.lastname@example.org