Advice from someone with “the heart of a luvvie and the mind of a suit”

John Tusa is an eminent former broadcaster, managing director of the BBC World Service, and managing director of the Barbican Centre.  He is a veteran of a variety of boards of cultural organisations and proud of being described as possessing “the heart of a luvvie and the mind of a suit”.  He has written an account of his experience of governance that should be on the reading list of everyone either occupying or contemplating appointment to a board.  His experience may be drawn from not-for-profit organisations in arts, broadcasting and education, but it is as applicable to boards in the private and public sectors as it is to the third sector.  As he remarks in the introduction to “On Board”[1]:

“It is sometimes assumed that boards in the business world are totally different from those in the not-for-profit sector. This is far less true than might first appear.  Both kinds of board choose their chair and chief executive, both decide how they appoint colleagues, how they sell to or serve their public, their customers or their audiences; both are responsible for brand, communication and reputation; both supervise the internal health of the organization.  Of course, one deals with profit, the other does not.  But while ‘not for profits’ are not businesses, they must be ‘business-like in the way s they manage their resources.”

While Tusa does not have direct experience of private sector boards himself, he has sat on boards with plenty of people with this experience, notably Kenneth Dayton, founder of the Target retail chain in the US and Tusa’s chair at American Public Radio, who pointed out to him that “governance in the not-for-profit sector is absolutely identical to governance in the for-profit sector”, besides which that it can also be a lot more complex.

Tusa builds his account of governance around his experience on the boards of the National Portrait Gallery[2], American Public Radio, English National Opera[3], the British Musuem, English National Opera, Wigmore Hall, the University of the Arts London and the Clore Leadership Programme, each of which merit a chapter reflecting interviews with fellow board members, executives  and other stakeholders. Tantalisingly, he also alludes to other experiences, such as his time as President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, but without the same detail.  Most of these organisations faced major challenges during his time with them, some potentially threatening to their existence.  His accounts of how the boards weathered their storms and his candour about the mistakes made along the way are pulled together with a short section ending each chapter drawing out his reflections on what he learned from each experience and provide a rich seam of learning not only for people joining boards for the first time but also for those with many board appointments already on the CV.

This book should be read for the lessons Tusa draws out at the end of each chapter.  Board members would do well to reflect on each, and whether they are applicable to their organisations.  But “On Board” can also be read for more: it provides anyone who has observed the ups and downs of some of Britain’s leading cultural institutions of what went on around the board room table.  As someone with strong ties to the Isle of Portland, I was suitably scandalised by the failure twenty years ago to use Portland Stone for the Great Court development at the British Museum.  Tusa’s first career was as  journalist and tells a good story, about this debacle and much more besides, as well providing a required text for chairs, directors and trustees.


[1] John Tusa, On Board (London: Bloomsbury 2020)

[2] His chair at NPG was Owen Chadwick, from whom I took my first lessons in chairing.  Chadwick was Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and a masterful chair of the faculty Joint Academic Committee, on which I sat as first year undergraduate (along with Diane Abbott, whose approach to faculty politics was considerably more radical than than the one she adopted later in her career as a leading member of the Labour Party in the House of Commons).

[3] I have a small gripe.  John Tusa, having studied history at Cambridge, should know better than to suggest (in the context of ENO which, despite a catalogue of errors made by the board in the 1990s, managed to survive, an achievement that he observes “should not be underestimated”) that it was the French politician Talleyrand who said of his part in the French Revolution “I survived”.  Far from just surviving, Talleyrand’s extraordinary achievement was to serve just about every government in France between 1780 and 1834, from the Ancien Regime, through every stage of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, the Bourbon Restoration and the Orleanist “July Monarchy”.  It was not Talleyrand, but Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, usually known as the abbé Sieyès, a chief political theorist of the French Revolution, who is reputed to have said in answer to a question about what he did during The Terror of 1793-94: “J’ai vécu”

What happens to organisational “dark matter” when everything moves on-line?

Much of my working life moved on-line when Covid-19 hit.  From time to time, I still go into the office although it feels as though a neutron bomb has hit: the building is there, but it is largely empty and most of those normally there are working from home.  All the meetings that were conducted face to face before mid March now take place on video conferencing platforms (although half the time my colleagues have cameras switched off or their on-screen presence has frozen).  Research appears to suggests that the productivity of most of the people now working remotely is higher than before.  I miss my commute because it provided a welcome opportunity for exercise and included a delightful bike ride along the Grand Union Canal, but I am sure that I am in a small minority.

I miss the serendipitous conversations that take place in the corridor, making coffee, in the margins of formal meetings, and in the course of visits that I make as chairman to the front-line units and staff of my organisation.  I have recruited a couple of new colleagues during the Covid-19 lockdown and we have had to manage their induction remotely, which clearly has its drawbacks.  But other than these examples, I don’t get the feeling that the way that we do business has suffered much so far.  However, is this sustainable?

David Robson has written an article in New Scientist[1], suggesting that “the coronavirus pandemic may be dismantling your social network without your realising it”.  This echoes a concern of mine that the way most of us, and most organisations, have coped through the changes enforced Covid-19 has been only been possible as a result of the accumulated investment in relationships built up face-to-face.  My board know each other well, know how to interpret each other’s contributions, will make allowances for each other and can generally anticipate how others will react to what they have to say.  This has helped carry us through the past five months and will continue to assist through the next few months as, we all hope, we emerge from the crisis.  This will apply to all sorts of established relationships around any organisation, will underpin day to day conversations and routine business, and will inform the diplomacy and political manoeuvring around the more tricky transactions.  Assets on our balance sheet are liable to decay and, in our accounts for our business, we apply depreciation to them to reflect this.  The intangible assets that are our social capital and which have carried us through new pattern of remote working are no different.

Robson’s article led me to a New York Times interview with Satya Nadella (personally heavily invested in video-conferencing, and consequently other people’s remote working, as CEO of the organisation that owns MS Teams and Skype).  “Mr. Nadella said that raw productivity stats for many of Microsoft’s workers have gone up, but that isn’t something to ‘overcelebrate.’  More meetings start and end on time, but ‘what I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after.’ That’s tough to replicate virtually, as are other soft skills crucial to managing and mentoring.”[2]

Robson continues his article by summarising a wide range of research around social contact, and highlighting its value to us in terms of mental wellbeing and importance dimensions such as trust.  In a sidebar to his main article, he quotes Peter Drucker writing in 1993 “It is now infinitely easier, cheaper and faster to do what the 19th century could not do: move information, and with it office work, to where the people are.  The tools to do so are already here: the telephone, two-way video, electronic mail, the fax machine, the personal computer, the modem, and so on.”   Robson notes that it has taken the pandemic for people to realise that they can work with less face time and discusses why it has taken a crisis to realise the potential for more people to work remotely.  But while he concludes that “the relative success of new ways of working in the pandemic would certainly suggest that we can get by with less face time” he acknowledges that it would be unwise to scrap it entirely.

I worked remotely for much of the 1990s (with a dial up modem and Compuserve email address that consisted of numbers alone).  Consequently, the revelations about the productivity of people working from home come as no surprise.  However, I was working as a consultant and on private equity projects at the time.  The work from home was interspersed with face to face activity with clients, selling projects and ideas, negotiating deals and persuading investors to back me.  I was operating on my own or in small teams rather than a large organisation that was creating a greater value than could be achieved by a series of discrete market transactions and with the benefit of what I have described elsewhere as organisational “Dark Matter”.  Having moved in and out of varied working arrangements and organisations differing in size over the past forty years, I  know the importance of face to face contact in building relationships that are strong enough to be effectively maintained at a distance.

The large, global consultancy firm where I worked in the early 1980s employed a variety of devices to build relationships within the local office and the world-wide firm: consultants were expected to return to the office on a Friday to lunch together and receive a short presentation about a colleague’s project and piece of training; at each stage in your career development you attended residential courses with your peer group; practice groups would hold regional conferences to share learning; and the international partner group would meet for an annual conference.   All this contributed to building a shared set of values, common approaches to solving client problems, and the ability to work remotely while remaining part of the firm.

It is important to recognise the corollary of Robson’s thesis: with remote working there is a risk that the quality of relationships will decay over time, particularly if the context in which the relationships were developed changes, if you don’t make this sort of investment.  The “new normal” may involve much more remote working, but organisations need to recognise that the success of this approach over the past five months has been made possible by years of investment in social capital by having people working together previously.  They will need to invest in “maintenance social capital” by getting people to getting people together sufficiently frequently to address the depreciation in this asset if they want to continue remote working in the longer term.





[1] New Scientist, 20th August 2020, pp32-36. “Missed Connections”

[2] New York Times, Dealbook Newsletter, 14th May 2020