Recently, I had the great pleasure of hosting the bi-annual Elliotts lunch for leading women in the sector. It sounds a bit corny to say it was a real privilege but it was – with nearly 60 brilliant, inspirational women in the room. Every woman there has played, and is still playing, a key role in making the sector as successful as it is today. It was such a great occasion.
The most brilliant and inspirational among us was our speaker, Debbie Hewitt, chairman of The Restaurant Group, who I thought would be a great person to talk about her career and board level experiences. She was appointed as a non-executive director of The Restaurant Group in May 2015 and independent non-exec chairman almost a year later. She is currently non-executive chair of Moss Bros Group, White Stuff and Visa UK and senior non-executive director of Redrow, NCC Group, BGL and Domestic & General. Her executive career was spent at RAC where she was group managing director and prior to that she was in retail management with M&S. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and was awarded an MBE for services to business and the public sector in 2011. Oh and she has twin seven year olds, supports Liverpool and is a parish councillor just for fun.
Importantly for her audience, she has had 17 non-exec roles in ten different sectors working in turnarounds, growth businesses, startups, regulated businesses, mergers and acquisitions and companies in administration. As she said though, the only part of her career that she planned was her MBA and Masters in finance. Her career path has been random apart from that – giving hope to some of us in the room. Going plural has given her the opportunity to influence the strategy and to shape the future direction of the businesses she has been involved in whilst helping her gain experiences of different sectors, appreciate what good really looks like and to learn from other experienced non-executive directors.
She did discuss some aspects of board life:
– Not all board meetings are strategic all of the time. Increasingly they focus on governance and compliance
– Non-executive directors have to have insight on everything. They have to ask the critical question and, just as importantly, be prepared to really listen to the answers
– Fraud is not the biggest issue for boards – getting the strategy right is.
– Non-executive directors have to be executive at times and be prepared to step up to the plate
– All non-executive directors are accountable – not just the execs
She shared some of her own lessons, which were fascinating for us all:
– Makes it a priority to understand how every business she is involved in truly makes money
– Looks for evidence in the data rather than relying on the opinion of others. She has found that often the opinion of the most senior person in the room is given more weight than the data. She is only interested in what the information is telling her
– Needs to know who is really accountable for delivering what
– Looks for the best and worst case scenarios across business options
– Wants to appreciate if the situation passes the Sunday Times test
– Needs to understand what is happening outside the board room
– Looks for three elements in her role. Is she learning? Is she influencing and leaving a legacy? Is she having fun? She looks for roles, which give her at least two out of three of these
I personally took away some key learnings of my own from Debbie’s talk:
– Always keep in touch with your customers. Go out and about and take no notice of those who try to stop you
– Aim to leave a legacy and appreciate what you want to be known for doing and achieving
– Have confidence. Don’t let that inner voice negatively influence you. Believe you can
Debbie spoke with passion, enthusiasm, humour and engagement. We will all have come away from meeting her and hearing her speak just that bit more enthused and inspired about what we can achieve in our own careers. What a fantastic role model.