The interview: Charlotte Valeur

Written by: Nick Kirby Posted: 18/09/2017

Interview_Charlotte ValeurAs Founder of Board Apprentice, Charlotte Valeur is helping to increase diversity on company boards. She talks to BL about why diversity is vital but often misunderstood, and why the Channel Islands face an imminent board crisis 

Tell us how you got to where you are now.

I started work in 1982 as an investment banker in Denmark, which is where I’m from. From there, I moved to London in 1991 and worked in dealing rooms in the City. When I had my first child, in 1999, I stopped working and set up my own business working with hedge fund managers and institutional investors.

I moved to Jersey in 2006 and as soon as I arrived, people started asking if I would sit on certain boards – especially hedge funds – and within a year, I had a portfolio of eight different boards.

In the meantime, my own business was changing. As opposed to finding investors for hedge fund managers and helping institutions find appropriate managers, I became more involved with boards and governance in general. So I launched what’s now Global Governance Group – a governance consultancy – doing board reviews and various aspects of governance advice. 

Was there something in particular that triggered the idea of Board Apprentice?

When you’re a board member, people point at you all the time and say you’re not doing this and not doing that – but no one was helping to develop any tools to make things change, either in terms of tactical implementation of best practice governance or in diversity for boards.

There’s often a lot of talk, but that doesn’t change anything – you need action. I was looking for the action that could make a difference in terms of diversity. So, I started looking for really simple solutions. And one such solution was to work together in multi-stakeholder cooperation, where the boards start taking responsibility for educating the board members that come after them. 

The problem is that most board members sit there for however long and don’t concern themselves with who comes next. This is wrong. When you’re on a board, you’re a leader of a company – you can’t just leave your seat and not concern yourself properly with who comes behind you, and the pool of people that you choose from.

What does diversity mean to you?

I think people have a very narrow view of it – that it’s all about women and ethnic minorities. I talk about diversity in a much broader context – it’s about gender, ethnicity, generational diversity, LGBT, neural diversity, skills like technology, and more. There are so many aspects of diversity that aren’t present on boards.

The board’s composition is the heart of any board. It’s the most important thing, but it’s the one area that boards are most flippant about. The type of people on the board, their ways of doing things, their views, their background – these issues are at the core of the board. Yet all too often it seems that it’s a certain ‘type’ of person who sits on a board.

Boards need a much broader input – different sets of eyes to look at the issue. The line I keep saying is ‘having enough eyes to see’ – and that means younger eyes, eyes from different social backgrounds, different countries, different sectors. 

How did you set up Board Apprentice and how does it work?

Initially it was me thinking about how we could develop diverse board members who are board-ready but for some reason haven’t had access to board rooms; how we could open doors. 

I thought: ‘Why can’t boards offer a seat at the table for education – where someone serves for a year as an observer or apprentice?’. 

The first thing I did was look at the eight boards I was on myself and ask them if they would mind having someone observing what we do through the full accounting year, so they see everything that goes on within a year in a company – the accounts, the various cycles of the year and so forth.

At the end of that time, they should have a very good picture of what it means to be a board member. Five of the boards said yes, and one of the groups allowed me to send a letter to all its directors of different investment trusts, out of which came another five boards.

It’s grown very quickly from there. Did that take you by surprise? 

Yes! But it proved that there was a gap in the market for a really simple solution. I think the important thing is that when firms and boards said ‘no’, we got them to tell us why they didn’t want an apprentice and then we covered those reasons. 

The ones that hated it, those are the ones we want to talk to, so we can hear what their real problem is. Now, we’ve pretty much covered all the issues that any board can come up with as to why they wouldn’t want to take part. 

Why did you meet resistance?

It was a variety of reasons. For instance, there may be one person on the board blocking it. In some cases, that was a woman, which I found very interesting. We didn’t expect that. When we dug deeper, one of the reasons that came up a couple of times was that these people felt they might be helping potential competitors. To me, this shows a clear lack of leadership skills. 

It’s a duty to have succession planning. Many boards haven’t quite got it – they do executive succession planning, but not board succession planning. And to block development of new board members that you can use for your succession planning isn’t good leadership.

What stage are you at now in terms of Board Apprentice?

When it all took off, it was a bit like holding back a racehorse – it was quite extraordinary. We quickly set up the company, got a website in place and developed an operations manual. 

Board Apprentice basically works as a social franchise. We give the whole concept, along with the operations manuals, to someone who wants to run it, voluntarily, as a group of up to 20 boards.  

We currently operate in Jersey, Guernsey, Bermuda, Cayman, Switzerland, Denmark and the UK, and have around 50 apprentices on boards now – we’d like that number to grow. We have another 30 boards that are looking to take part – they just take their time deciding on it. It changes every week. 

Some of the boards were so impressed with the apprentices we put forward that they hired them straight away as board members. That’s not what we want to do – we’re not a recruitment company – we’re trying to broaden the pool. But what it showed us was there are a lot of people out there who are truly ready, they just don’t get access. What we do, it seems, is open the door.

Do boards come to you with specific requirements – or ask you what would be the best fit?

We give the host boards a questionnaire where they tick boxes as to what they would like to have. The boards can make specific requests, but most often they ask for a variety – and we then show them three or four different candidates. 

What was interesting was that in the first round, all the boards chose a white woman, but in the second round they went to the next ‘level’ – ethnic diversity – and the next it was LGBT or younger people.

It’s as if having an apprentice on the board brings in a level of disruption to the boardroom – being different opens their minds and hearts to further differences, which is an unintended positive consequence that we hadn’t envisaged.

It’s an often-cited problem that boards in the Channel Islands are mainly older white men. Do you find that’s the case?

The small islands are interesting because each has its own problem. In Cayman, for example, there were issues with Caymanians not reaching board level. 

It was the same in Bermuda. This was becoming a social issue. They have second and third generation, well-educated local people hitting a glass ceiling in the same way women have in the UK. 

In Guernsey, there’s a problem with the pool just being too small for the business they have – they need a bigger number, both men and women. In Jersey, we have a decent number, but not enough women to service the businesses we have.

In 2020, when there’s a requirement for listed companies to have a minimum 33 per cent females, we’re going to struggle to fill those posts. That will be two to three women on more than 100 boards – we can’t fill that, so we have to bring in women from outside. 

What about the argument that some people have way too many directorships?

Oh, that’s absolutely true. I know many people who have 25 or more and they can’t fulfil their responsibilities properly. In extreme cases, there are people with 200 roles, which is just ridiculous.

The problem is that roles are being offered to the same people all the time. I get approached every week to be on another board. I have seven positions and that’s the maximum I’ll have. I’d be happy to take it down to five. 

It’s interesting that you encourage generational diversity – are younger board members generally overlooked?

Absolutely. Younger people add an enormous amount of value to boards. We have a 27-year-old apprentice on the Board Apprentice global board right now – a young man from KPMG – and he gives us amazing input. He just really understands how younger people work and live and what their expectations are, and how we can reach them.

Older board members need to be much more accepting of the fact that experience alone doesn’t give you an edge in today’s world, that’s something younger directors can bring. 

Do you think companies put too much effort into marketing and promoting themselves and too little into board composition?

Totally. There are so many examples of how important it is to have the right board composition. You can make one decision that kills the company. Blockbuster is a great example. In 2007, they decided that streaming wasn’t worth investing in. Seriously? What set of eyes did they not have?

If you look back at it, you think: ‘What the hell? How did they make that decision?’. It took only three years for the company to file for bankruptcy after that. 

If you get the CEO coming and asking the board for £20 million for an online trading system and the board is made up of the wrong composition of members, they may say no. They will make one wrong decision and it might kill a company that’s been around for years.

So what does the next 24 months hold for Board Apprentice?

There’s so much going on all the time. We’re in discussions with someone from North Australia to develop Aboriginal board members. We’ve opened some discussions with the Japanese government. We’re doing a cross-country SME group between a UK university and a Danish university. We’re talking to top business schools about collaborating with them. We’re talking to a large accountancy firm about launching in the US. 

In the next 24 months, all of that could happen. We’re also looking at launching a group in Ireland. 

Eighty per cent of our apprentices ultimately become board members, so we have a very good track record and we’re feeding off that to keep going. 

I hope we’ll have several hundred host boards, keep developing board members in the countries we’re in, and set up in new countries as a truly global structure. The sky’s the limit.

FACT FILE

Name: Charlotte Valeur
Age: 53
Position: Founder, Board Apprentice
Children: Three
Hobbies: Board Apprentice, painting, walking, reading
Interesting fact: When I was 19, I set up and ran a Rottweiler club in Denmark, where we trained Rottweilers in the police programme. It grew to the point that we were training 100 Rottweilers annually.

 


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