Farooq Mohammed becomes the second of our MBA alumni community to give a first-hand account of his extensive board experience across a diverse range of sectors and several types of organisation. Farooq has held positions within a FTSE FT 30 company, the Crown Commercial Service of the UK Cabinet Office, not to mention the MHA Care Homes a Methodist charitable organisation. In keeping with this general theme, the concept behind Westminster Business School’s new type of MBA is very much to ground professionals in the role of board directors by, amongst other things, giving them direct exposure and experience working on shadow advisory boards, rotating between organisations and business entities across four pre-defined sectors: entrepreneurial, corporate, international and not-for-profit. These experiences will equip MBA participants with the practical skills and knowledge to successfully perform the role of a professional board director through self-directed and practical learning.
Can you tell us more about your experience of working on a board/on boards?
I have 25 years plus experience as a non-executive director (NED) and in reporting to Boards. My career roles as an NED/executive director ran very much in parallel. Throughout my time I was always selective about the roles I took on. A key criterion I applied was recognising where I could best add value. During my board roles I came to understood the important difference between management and leadership behaviours and deployed accordingly. Generally my advice would be to give due diligence! Research and know your terms of reference. Understand the role, responsibilities and the way authorities are delegated. An acquired skill is learning to know when to step back!
What boards did you work for and in what capacity?
Various. Whenever I chose to take up such a position, in each case I made sure that I sat on boards which aligned with my own passions and values in an authentic way:
1. NED @ MHA.
2. Independent Director @ London ALMO.
3. NED @ FINCCH (City Fund providing long term Charitable Care Investment).
4. Chair @ The Forum Network
How did you make it to the board?
In my case, focusing on the day job! Inevitably this runs in parallel. You need to develop skills, knowledge and experience in key facets, and if you succeed in doing that you will certainly be invited to apply. You should be someone who naturally collaborates with people, but not a “professional” networker, because people may take you to be inauthentic. It is important to be focused on what you do and do it well which goes some way to cementing your credibility and reputation and builds trust amongst your peers.
What other positions have you held?
I became Area Manager at the relatively young age of 23 so I have held several positions outside the board-room. From there I became a Group Manager then Head of Service, to eventually become a Director. Switching from the public sector to corporate world (working for a FTSE FT 30 company) seemed a transformational change at the time but looking back on it the differences can be exaggerated because there were similarities as well.
If you’ve worked in different sectors (e.g. start-up, third sector, public sector, private sector) on boards, were there any noticeable differences?
The obvious ones are priorities, organisational language and culture, and general outlook (e.g. short termism v long termism, NFP v Profit). Austerity has forced public/third sector entities into diversifying operations and offerings to generate increasing levels of surplus to fund core activity. The tough decisions taken by Housing Associations in recent years are a prime example of this. With innovation, accelerated technological advances and speed of travel, corporates are also having to adapt and diversify to maintain agility and keep pace, by adopting strategies like de-centralising control, partnering with SMEs, etc.
Does being a good director directly translate into being a strong board member?
In many ways yes, especially where you are concerned with Strategy, Performance, Risk and People. However, there are also distinctions to be drawn between being an Exec (reporting) and Non Exec setting direction, supporting Exec Team and providing vision, direction, oversight and leadership for the organisation. This can vary widely from Board to Board depending on governance structure, delegated authorities and type of ‘sector’ organization.
What do you think can be gained from an MBA that specifically prepares you to work with, for, or on the board?
Much is to be gained from an MBA and qualifications remain important. In my opinion, an MBA helps to anchor and consolidate all your experience, skills, learning, and develop a more strategic outlook, although is no guarantee. In my experience, I’ve met as many MBA’s who have not brought these qualities into the board-room and conversely worked with non-MBAs who have been successful at this and as a result I have learned from them. Ultimately its about your personal qualities, your experiences and how these translate into value in what you bring to the table as oppose to the qualifications you’ve achieved.
What are the three most exciting reasons to work on a board?
It all boils down to “opportunities” but to come onto my three reasons:
1. To contribute and add value.
2. To learn and grow
3. To leave the organization in a better place than when I joined it.
Can you tell us more about working on a board – what it entails and who you work with. (E.g. How often do you meet? What type of work does it involve?)
Working on a Board requires a time commitment. Both to attend meetings and reading committee papers. On top of this you have to be prepared to go on Away Days with the Executive Team where this could involve a weekend residential. Board Meetings can generally involve attendance bi-monthly or quarterly with papers and agenda circulated in advance. This requires advance preparation and/or consultation with other Board Members or Executives. You can also be additionally tasked with representing the Board with delegated authorities at sub-committee level, for example Remuneration or Audit & Risk, etc.
Board meetings will entail setting or reviewing strategy, performance, resources and approving recommendations. Currently I am working in an advisory capacity (SME Panel) to the Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Service (CCS). This is a very different role to ones I’ve held in the past, working with Civil Servants to influence policy in relation to public procurement and spend with SMEs. Five workstreams have been identified by the SME panel, with sub-groups set up and assigned to lead on each workstream. As a matter of fact I am the appointed Chair for one of these workstreams and responsible for reporting back to the main panel (Board).
Because this is a very different role to ones I have held previously, it was one of the reasons I agreed to join the SME panel. This contrasts with leading the Board within my own company which I established in 2012, which meets quarterly and reviews performance against plan and sets objectives for the following quarter. Having a ‘personal’ Board of trusted advisors to call upon assists me a great deal in making crucial decisions and choices. I think if this is something you can build for yourself, it can greatly enhance your personal development, but you have to be open to criticism and keeping an open mind!
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?
Interesting question. I’m struggling to think of an example where a Board has had too much diversity! Over the last decade, there has rightly been much focus on this within corporate Board Rooms largely due to the global crises from the credit crunch. I know in the UK there have been positive gains when considering gender diversity looking at the Boards of the FTSE 100, but this is relative and there is still a long way to go, especially at Board Chair and CEO level. When you look at ethnic diversity the situation is even worse and way off the pace without much observable progress.
When I look at some of the Fortune 500 companies I have dealings with in the USA, it does seem they are far more diverse comparatively to the UK but genuine equality. diversity and inclusion is still a distant aspiration. In short, I am passionate about diversity, because studies and practical examples have shown time and time again, a lack of diversity stifles innovation and can breed the wrong behaviours and group think. In a modern, ever more connected, shrinking world, innovation is the only way to go, it is about attracting the best talent and it can never be a bad thing if you reflect on the customer base or clients or communities you serve – if anything it will be your competitive advantage.
Do you have any (possibly quirky) anecdotes that you would like to share about your board experiences?
Joining the MHA Board and meeting the Chair of the Board for the first time! For those of you who may not know was set up as a Methodist charity. I was wondering, and the Chair also was visibly struggling while trying to be polite in reconciling how someone from an Islamic background could be motivated to join the Board of an organization with a markedly Christian ethos. The CEO had wanted to bring me on on account of my specialist skills. To address this, I decided to be open and helped the Chair out by not only posing a question on his dilemma of how this squared with Christian values but answering it myself clearly articulating and justifying my arguments in terms of the same Christian values. This left him speechless especially when I proceeded to explain that none of these values were inconsistent with my own values or beliefs. It immediately defused any reservations he may have had, challenged any preconceptions or stereotypes in the room. I can say it stood out as one of my best experiences working with a Board. It reminded me of the value of never judging a book by its cover… an increasingly important lesson living in an evermore diverse world, and in London a great multicultural and global city.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to work their way up to board level?
1. Be focused on your role, be passionate, and be successful in delivering value/outcomes.
2. Consider your own professional areas for development and find a mentor or someone to shadow to help strengthen.
3. Look at local organisations around where you live or work of interest to you where you could see yourself sitting on a Board.
4. Make sure you have the time and commitment to be an effective board member.
5. Make the time to study the scope of your role and the organizational context you will be operating in to ensure you are conversant with terms of reference, constitution, etc.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing traditional ‘board culture’ today?
I think there are several. Diversity, responding to change, ensuring organizational values translate into outcomes and sustainability remain the biggest challenges. Board culture is inextricably linked to the external environment, and Boards today have to be equipped and be able to deal with a much broader range of risks than they’ve ever had to in the past, from macro-drivers such as globalization and climate change to digitalization and keeping up with the pace of change. Whether dealing with customers, clients or service users, expectations and values are now constantly changing and Board cultures now have to be able to adapt quickly to lead through these complex, ever-shifting landscapes to remain relevant.
Many thanks to Farooq Mohammed for agreeing to conduct this interview and for sharing all these excellent insights.
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 to read more and apply.