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Conversation with Barry Stowe, INED Zurich Insurance and Senior Advisor Prudential PLC


Barry Stowe, INED of Zurich Insurance and Senior Advisor of Prudential PLC


Last week, we held the latest event in our WDP Alumni network webinar series. We were delighted to host Barry Stowe, INED Zurich Insurance and Senior Advisor, Prudential PLC. Barry shared his insights on a range of topics and spent time answering questions and listening to comments from the alumni.


Discussions mainly focused on Future of work, Board Priorities and Engagement, continued commitment to Talent, Culture, Diversity and Wellbeing and some great personal stories of Barry’s own experience transitioning from Executive to INED.


Future of work and COVID

It will be interesting to see how things will change during and post COVID 19 around the world of work with people not going into offices and using technology far more. Peoples priorities are changing as time has provided an opportunity for reflection.


Board Priorities and Board Engagement

Board governance has led to greater engagement between non-executives and executives and the profound economic impact has seen a far greater drive for more communication between the iNEDs and Execs is a really positive element. The boards are challenging the executive teams during this time to ensure that we collectively make good long-term decisions.


Board meetings are done remotely through Zoom which provides greater speed of response and also a greater frequency of communication. Board topics have shifted to an analysis of operating models, expense management, protecting shareholder value and the wellness of employees. It’s interesting of course that these highly sensitive items are taking place over a public internet platform, putting huge emphasis on robust secure networks. We used to have board dinners to get to know each other well, and now we have remote social events on Zoom with the board, where we have breakout rooms for side bar discussions around particular topics - which is pretty good.


Talent, Culture, Diversity and Well being

Talent, Culture and Diversity was front of mind prior to the pandemic, and this cannot be sacrificed post COVID 19. We have been asking people to go above and beyond relating to time and commitment. There has been a huge impact on emotional wellbeing, especially for women, working from home and still managing the family dynamics. This must remain a high priority for us.


Economic Outlook

There has been a shocking drop in commercial activity this year, worse than the 1930s in many ways. While a few companies have done well, notably Amazon, many have struggled, though innovative solutions abound. Now we see a reigniting of the economies, and I hope in a years’ time the world will feel a little bit more normal. But, the governments of the world have injected huge sums into the economy, in the US alone $3 trillion, which is creating huge long-term debt for governments and countries. Every board meeting now includes leading economist presentations to continually updated us around long-term outlook for global economy especially relating to government debt.



Barry Stowe and the participants


Transition from Executive to INED

Barry shared his journey from executive to non-executive and the learnings. “Well I had the advantage as a main board member of Prudential for 14 years, and as Prudential had a unitary board, this gave me visibility of the iNEDs, as an executive I sat alongside them for the 10 board meetings a year, so I got to observe them. There were some really great iNEDs to learn from.


What was invaluable was chairing the subsidiary boards in Asia. I think I chaired four of the 14 subsidiary boards. Prudential allowed its businesses to run as quite independent entities and that gave me the ability to allow the management and executive teams to operate with some oversight but not with executive intervention. And of course now that I'm an INED, I’ve had to fight the impulse a few times not to jump in, which is a learning. Board preparation is critical. Some boards looking at 1,000+ pages in the board packs! Others have managed to get it down to a few hundred, so still large, and you need to ensure you have read this. I also sit on the audit committee which brings a far greater amount of work. I invest in talking to management and really getting to understand the company. This is vital, ensure you can and do this. A new INED (to any board) must be willing to learn and be vulnerable. You are not the expert on all things. Ensure you get the information you need to know how the CEO/Exec is doing and if they are doing the right things but not to be the expert above the CEO.


Shareholder Value Vs Stakeholder Value

We need to drive shareholder value through improving stakeholder engagement, managing relationships with partners, regulators, investors, employees and government. That is the only way we can help to improve real shareholder value.

Diversity has great value, and of course it is the right thing to do. In my time as a CEO, it was clear you get better outcomes with different experiences in the room, and you get stronger and better conclusions to any decision, so economically why wouldn’t you!

We need to drive to having a purpose driven organisation, this is a top priority.


Hiring and Succession Planning

Companies aren’t recruiting as they normally do. They are now able to pay attention to the future critical roles and are taking longer to fill them as they become even more discerning and mindful in their choices. We have the opportunity to tip the balance in terms of diversity and address the gaps. It’s time to focus on succession planning, making sure the slate of candidates is deep enough.


*****

Huge thanks Barry for his time and insights, to the alumni for their fabulous questions and to The Women’s Foundation Women to Watch for joining us in this discussion.

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