How to make effective use of board meetings


By Samantha White

The modern board faces constantly evolving challenges, with multiple issues competing for its attention in a limited period of time. Honorary CIMA fellows Charlie Mayfield, executive chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, and Jean-Marc Huët, CFO of Unilever, provided tips on making the most effective use of the time boards spend together. 

Their comments came during a recent panel discussion hosted by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

Careful planning of the agenda to secure adequate time for the issues you most want to focus on is the first step for CFOs, according to Mayfield. For the John Lewis Partnership, a UK company that owns chains of department stores and supermarkets, this involves starting each board meeting with the strategic issues of priority for that year, ensuring there is time for quality discussion. Routine matters can be slotted in later.

Drawing on his experience at Unilever, Huët recommended that companies dispose of lengthy PowerPoint presentations and instead think about the kind of information board members really need. The CEO and CFO need to train members of the team on how to put a one-page pre-read together. This approach provides both the stimulus and opportunity, in terms of time saved, for a fruitful discussion, Huët said.

Mayfield revealed how site visits and specialised briefings help to draw all the key strands of the agenda together to support strategic decision-making for John Lewis. For example, the board spent a day at the main fulfilment centre that supplies shops around the UK as well as the online business. The board was also due to visit a branch of Waitrose to see many of the chain’s newly launched concepts in situ and gain an understanding of how the shopping experience is evolving.

“We’ve got a briefing from our customer insight director to make sure that we really understand the customer from a data insight perspective,” said Mayfield. “Then we will be doing some further work on the historic performance of the partnership over the last ten years, looking at some of the trends and particularly calling out the impact of technology and how that’s changed the shape of the business and the financial dynamics. All with a view to informing what should we be anticipating going forward.”

However, it is also important to provide an opportunity for unstructured discussion. Huët suggested holding a dinner the evening before the board meeting for a free flow of information with the chief executive before the demands of the agenda take over. This also provides an opportunity to hear about, and benefit from, board members’ wide-ranging experience and expertise.

A new briefing by CIMA, The Role of the CFO on the Modern Board, draws on the event’s discussion to highlight CFOs’ various roles and responsibilities as well as the many challenges modern boards face.

Samantha White (swhite@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.

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