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24 April 2018 | By Joe Marshall Interview

Getting to the point

How the duo behind Board Intelligence are trying to promote boardroom efficiency

One company, two CEOs. It’s an unusual approach, but one that works for Pippa Begg and Jennifer Sundberg. And when it comes to boardrooms, they know a thing or two. Since 2008, they’ve been the joint CEOs of Board Intelligence, a business aiming to transform the effectiveness of boards by improving the quality of their briefing papers.

Sundberg founded the company in 2002 and ran it as strategy consulting firm. Then an opportunity to observe a board meeting of a FTSE company came along and opened her eyes to opportunity.

“I’d never been in board meeting before, and this was a FTSE 350 company, so I turned up with high expectations of professionalism,” says Sundberg. “For the next three hours I sat through a meeting that never got to talking about what mattered.

“It wasn’t the board’s fault. These were carefully selected, relevant experts. But in front of each one was a huge board pack of every imaginable cut of historic performance data. The business was facing some major threats but none of this was apparent in a backward-looking data set.

“It brought into focus the role that information plays in the boardroom.”

This was around the time of the financial crash; increased focus was on boards and things needed to change. That’s when Pippa Begg came onboard.

“I had the relative privilege to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of what was going on then,” says Begg, who’d worked in financial services and had a different exposure to the boardroom.

That combined experience resulted in a shared vision that boards could be better, and that business could be run as force for good.

“The trajectory of business and society was going in the wrong direction,” says Sundberg. “Getting the right people was necessary but not sufficient for success. We enable directors, and make sure everyone in the boardroom can see what matters, stimulating the conversations that matter.”

Turning to technology

After Begg’s arrival in 2008, the duo continued to approach each assignment on a case-by-case basis and soon realised that their outputs were getting similar. Whether sitting down to read the Chief Executive report of a mining company or a hospital, the level of questions needing insight were the same.

“We knew we needed to build a product that is essentially a best practice reporting toolkit,” says Sundberg.

The resulting software touches the different stages of pulling a board pack together: from a workflow tool for the project management of making the pack, to a learning and development component to teach people how to write their papers more effectively.

So how important has the changing face of technology been in their success?

“Absolutely massive,” says Begg. “It’s not just how you disseminate best practice. It’s how people learn and update their skills and the way content is more easily shared.

“Then there’s the digital platform used not just to create the papers, but to compile and distribute them. It doesn’t just need to be convenient, it needs to be secure too. Technology has been absolutely key.”

The common challenge

Begg and Sundberg’s innovation has attracted clients ranging from the likes of EasyJet and Bank of New York, to private equity houses like Livingbridge and their portfolio of fast growing SMEs. There’s even schools and hospitals using their product.

“The interesting thing about our journey is that our client base started with the big multi-nationals,” says Begg. “But so many of the themes and trends are similar across all organisations. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to provide a solution to a hospital trust in the same way you would do a FTSE100?”

From moving from paper to digital, and because of the number of people involved, Begg and Sundberg estimate they can save their clients at least 50 per cent of time invested in producing reports.

“When you ask someone on a board the cost of preparing board papers, they’re often a few hundred percent off,” says Sundberg. ‘A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes. So, when a board says, ‘can we have a paper on x, y, or z,’ they don’t have a clear sense of the impact it’s going to have on the organisation.”

A learning process

Board Intelligence has also learnt a lot in the process of developing its tools.

“We made the mistake early on of outsourcing some of our technology department,” says Begg. “But we realised very quickly that technology would need to be a core competency of our work. Now there’s no more outsourcing. We have a tech team that’s plugged into our customer team, who are living and breathing our challenges. They are plugged into our exec committee, where we’re talking about...’

“…The art of the possible,” says Sundberg. And not for the first time one finishes the other’s sentence.

Which begs the question, how does a boardroom work with two CEOs?

“That’s one of the things we’re regularly challenged on,” says Begg. “People can’t comprehend how it would work. And we sit there and think, how is it not the most natural thing from a leadership perspective? Everyone is fallible, everyone has a bad day. And on that day, you have a counterbalance. So, you don’t make bad decisions.”

“There’s a difference between skills and values,” adds Sundberg. “With any business partner, you need somebody with whom you share values, but have complimentary skills. That sums it up for Pippa and me. Our way of coming at problems is quite different. Which is why two heads are better than one.”

Following the success of Board Intelligence’s Board Portal at the CBI, the company is offering CBI members an exclusive 30 day free trial of its Board Portal, to explore how they can make board pack production quicker, easier and more secure. For more information, please contact Lawrence Evans.

 

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