Why boards should walk planks

Running Board Meetings
November 21, 1997

Business students and teachers will find this brief book both useful and entertaining. Patrick Dunne runs a management buy-in operation at 3i, the international venture capital group. He draws on his own experience attending company board meetings to illustrate how they should and (more amusingly) should not be run. The idea for the book sprang from the fact that most people who run board meetings admit to having no formal training, despite the obvious importance of the job. Dunne shows how "inspirational" the appointment of key senior staff can be, in one anecdotal case through a chance casual meeting with the company chairman at a cocktail party the previous week.

Contrast this with the obstacle course faced by would-be graduate entrants: "a fearsome application form, a battery of psychometric tests, role plays and several days of interviews."

Predictably, we read that middle-aged, middle-class males still dominate the board room, though women are belatedly penetrating it as finance and marketing directors. But young people (their age group undefined) remain excluded, even though "it is easier to balance naive vigour than to invigorate a tired, out-of-date board".

Youngsters seeking the fast track to the boardroom are advised to join a venture capital firm - like the author's, perhaps - or specialise in joint venture relationships.

The book is probably of most educational value in its detailed picture of how company boards are structured and operate in France and Germany. Dunne contrasts France's elitist corporate culture with Germany's more egalitarian approach. In France many managements treat their boards as rubber stamps, whereas in Germany the management board runs the company but is itself subject to check by a supervisory board. Back in the UK, the underrated role of that eminence grise, the company secretary, receives welcome and overdue attention, his functions banged out in terse bullet points helpful to the examination swot.

The book's stated purpose is to provoke thought; it also provokes a good deal of (intended) mirth. The immortal saying of Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool FC, that "as he had no education he had to use his brains" is a pithy way of stressing the importance of common sense, as well as sophistication, in successful business management.

Dunne's typology of boardroom players, and how a good chairman can keep then in sync, will be familiar to anyone who has attended a university seminar. Among the cameos drawn are The Silent Seether, clever but overwrought, imploding and ultimately ineffective, and The Great Debater who, like Kaiser Wilhelm, approaches every issue with an open mouth. The book's numerous jokey cartoons sometimes force the humour, though the one illustrating how management trainees can learn even from incompetent colleagues - "watch me doing it badly, son, and you'll learn a lot" - hits the mark.

The book ends with a useful bibliography and practical appendices, including a board meeting case study for readers (or students) to role play with colleagues and a sample appointment letter for a director covering all aspects of his remit and functions.

David Rudnick is a freelance business journalist.

Running Board Meetings

Author - Patrick Dunne
ISBN - 0 7494 2379 X
Publisher - Kogan Page
Price - £12.99
Pages - 136

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