In the first in a series of blog articles titled “MBA Board-Room” we interview our successful MBA alumni who have gone on to take up key positions as board directors in their subsequent careers. As the new Westminster MBA is designed for aspiring directors we hope this goes some way towards inspiring current and future MBA participants. In the discussion that follows, Keiron Sparrowhawk has kindly agreed to draw on and share his extensive board experience straddling the biopharmaceutical industry, cognitive neuroscience, and consultancy.
Sparrowhawk graduated from Westminster with an MBA in 1998 and went on to establish MyCognition as a leading provider of personalized cognitive training programmes. MyCognition develops video games to assess and train cognition (our thinking, learning, reacting and memory processes) at all stages of life, in education and business delivering products for schools and the workplace to improve cognitive health, performance and to enhance people’s lives. In 2003 he co-founded and led PriceSpective, creating the most successful private-sector global biopharmaceutical ‘value consultancy’ company.
Sparrowhawk continues to collaborate closely with the MBA team at the Westminster Business School, and has been actively contributing to the redesign of the new generation of Westminster MBA launching in September 2017. He appeared as keynote speaker for a recent meeting of the MBA Tuesday Club held in January 2017.
Can you tell us more about your experience of working on a board/on boards?
I’ve worked on the boards of the following companies:
PriceSpective – Partner and co-founder. A value consulting company that I co-founded, selling consultation to the global pharmaceutical industry. This grew to sales of over $20 million per year, with 90 global staff.
MyCognition – CEO and founder. A cognitive health company undertaking clinical trials to investigate the assessment and improvement of cognition. We also work in schools and businesses. This company operates internationally.
Hypo-Stream – Chair. A pharmaceutical company developing wound healing and anti-inflammatory products.
Dent – Director. A company involved in personal development.
How did you make it to the board? What other positions have you held?
In some cases, through founding the company. In others through investing. But in all cases by having relevant experience to run these companies.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing traditional ‘board culture’ today?
• Focusing on the urgent matters at hand.
• Planning for the future.
• Knowing how to allocate time to the two items above.
What do you think can be gained from an MBA that specifically prepares you to work with, for, or on the board?
The MBA gives you the broad view beyond your area of expertise. You have the confidence and ability to understand areas of work outside your own line of expertise which enables you to make a meaningful contribution to debate.
Putting people in to the position of the board experience should help immensely them recognize their weaknesses and strengths and become a better board member through the process of critical self-appraisal. It is light-years away from being spoon fed, they can actually test themselves.
What are the three most exciting reasons to work on a board?
• The company is in your hands, meaning the employees, customers and shareholders rely on you.
• You make an impact on your company’s future.
• You are not just a cog in a big empire. When you turn, the company turns.
Can you tell us more about working on a board – what it entails and who you work with. (E.g. is this a full time role? How often do you meet? What type of work does it involve?)
I have only worked on boards where I understood the business. In some case I had an active, daily role within the business. In other cases, my role was limited to board meetings and not much else.
Meetings can be monthly, quarterly, ad hoc, depending on issues or fires that need putting out.
What personal/professional qualities do you believe are necessary to develop if you want to become a successful board member?
Integrity, honesty, trustworthiness. Professional skills associated with your role on the board.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to work their way up to board level?
Get your MBA / Business Qualification. Network up. Become known for your area of expertise. Write, blog or publish in the area. Approach boards and let them know your wish to get involved. Set up your own company.
Do you have any (possibly quirky) anecdotes that you would like to share about your board experiences?
The simplest things often seem to be the most challenging, My own company was international and getting people together using teleconferences or even getting people into the same location across the city, with people ending up in the wrong places. The board is not always a smooth running experience.
It can also be brutal- wanting people to be brutally honest. It is crucial to be perfectly honest for the good of the company even if you end up criticizing the very people in the room. Habitually, British people do have difficulties in being straightforward but yet in the long run it is better to be direct than always beating around the bush, just rip off the band aid.
Does being a good executive director directly translate into being a competent and qualified board member?
It does help but it is not necessarily that transferable, it is good if you know the tactics and ins and outs of operations, but you do need to be able to take a longer term view for the company.
What are the main differences between working for the board and being an executive director?
I have always gone to the companies where I had an experience of the business, which I always found useful. However at the same time it is also useful to have people from other industries not knowing that much about the business or industry to have various point of views. It is all about the diversity.
If you’ve worked in different sectors (e.g. start-up, third sector, public sector, private sector) on boards, were there any noticeable differences?
You do need different skills at various stages during the organizational development phase from start up to growth. The leadership of the board needs to recognize those.
There is currently a lot of focus on board diversity. Do you think that having high levels of diversity is always a good thing, or can too much diversity hinder the work done by a board?
You need people prepared to offer a different view, so diversity is very important.
Most important Skills for the board….
Blend of experience and a blend of skills – each of the cognitive skills should be present in the board, if you don’t have it, someone else has it.
The most important would be executive function, as majority of what the board does is about planning and organizing for the future.
You need to look for opportunities- looking for synergies (always looking to take advantage of the opportunities and making sure the company is not losing out, you have to be creative)and threats – how to alleviate the company
Chairman of the board- how important is this role?
A good chairman is crucial, they can make a huge difference between a successful and a failing company. The chair decides on the agenda in terms of what is to be discussed. The chairman’s main job is to get the views of everyone at the table and to listen, this is the key skill of the excellent chair.
Many thanks to Keiron Sparrowhawk for agreeing to give this interview.
Westminster Business School’s new cutting edge MBA programme, aimed at preparing future board directors to perform and succeed in today’s high-pressured business world holds its inaugural in-take the 2017/18 Academic Year. Please visit the Westminster MBA course page if you are considering applying.
Review of the January 2017 MBA Tuesday Club talk written by Zorica Patel:
Watch the full video from the January 2017 MBA Tuesday Club on the WestminsterBusSchool YouTube Channel.