In September Charlotte Valeur became the IoD’s new chair. The Danish-born corporate governance specialist is a seasoned FTSE 250 non-exec and has started her own enterprise aimed at improving boardroom diversity. She reveals what motivates her and explains why listening to young people is the key to lasting success in business
Charlotte Valeur is early. Arriving for her Director cover shoot a few minutes ahead of schedule, she greets every member of the team warmly and is clearly keen to get started. Time, we’ll come to learn, is paramount to the corporate governance specialist who became chair of the IoD in September.
“It is the rarest commodity and the biggest value we all have. The five minutes you just spent you can never have back,” she says in the interview that follows the photo session.
Why, then, has the former investment banker – who has held directorships at seven plcs, chaired a FTSE-250 firm (Kennedy Wilson Europe Real Estate) and run her own successful ventures – chosen the IoD as the next big focus of her time?
“I was proud when I became a FTSE-250 chair, but for me this is the top rung,” she says. “I do what I enjoy. I don’t spend time doing things I don’t enjoy. I am passionate about governance – and what this organisation stands for is good governance.”
Valeur, who was born and raised in Copenhagen, explains that her career has been driven, in part, by the tragedy she experienced in childhood.
“My mother died from breast cancer when I was seven. She was only 36. It was, absolutely, a defining moment for me,” she says. “I felt that I should live the life she didn’t have. I thought: ‘I have to be passionate about what I do and, if not, to change things, take responsibility for my decisions and ensure that I have the steering wheel.’ I also think going through all that has given me a resilience, which has helped me throughout my life.”
Valeur credits her father for her focus on ethics and equality. “My dad always told me: ‘Everybody has equal value, so treat people with respect, no matter what.’”
She adds that such principles fuelled her desire to travel, so that she could meet people with a wider range of backgrounds and experiences. “I had a firm idea that I wanted to live in another country one day. Investment banking attracted me for that reason, because it was international.”
Working as a securities trader in Copenhagen and then London, Valeur found that she was able to remain focused during chaotic situations and excel in a male-dominated industry. “I was on the trading floor through the 1987 crash and worked in the big London dealing rooms, where there were only three women out of 300 people,” she recalls.
“There were crises all the time, which taught me the basics of staying calm under pressure to avoid making mistakes.”
Valeur went on to hold directorships at finance giants BNP Paribas and Société Générale before formulating the idea for a business of her own.
“I took three years out when I had my first child. I needed intellectual stimulus and a challenge over that time,” she says. “I took a degree in psychology and also founded my first company. It helped new hedge fund managers, who’d been traders, to prepare their propositions to investors. My business partner joined the organisation and we hired seven people. Then a firm in Jersey proposed a joint venture, so we moved there.”
It was at this point that a new career, focusing on corporate governance, beckoned. “People started to ask me to sit on boards because my trading experience would be really valuable to them,” Valeur explains. “I became a non-executive director at 3i Infrastructure and within a year I had a portfolio of roles.”
Noticing an increasing demand for board-level guidance, she set up another firm, Global Governance Group in 2009.
The biggest challenge she has faced in running her own businesses? “Time. I’m a mother of three and it’s very important for me to have balance in life, so I’ve focused hard on time management. I move quickly and try not to procrastinate.”
Nurturing the network
Over the past decade Valeur has chaired three plcs; held several other non-exec roles; and founded not- for-profit social franchise Board Apprentice, which aims to increase boardroom diversity by offering year-long board placements to appropriate candidates.
One thing has remained constant in this period: her IoD membership. Now that she’s the chair, Valeur aims to help others get more from the network.
“The great thing about our diverse membership is that it offers so much scope for collaboration and knowledge-sharing. I want to help nurture that,” she says.
“Chartered Directors, for example, could share their knowledge with leaders who are on the journey to get there. And, with more and more young people starting businesses rather than going to university, we must ask: ‘How can we help them in professionalising what they’re doing?’ When you see other people helping you grow, you’re more inclined to do the same for others, I hope. And that can only be good for all.”
Here are Valeur’s views on governance failures, diversity in the boardroom and the attributes of a great chair…
Why, for you, is board diversity integral to good governance? “It’s about balance. The board is the beating heart of corporate governance. Get it wrong and everything else will go wrong too. You can have as many policies as you like but, without the right attitudes around the table, people are unlikely to follow them. For me, good governance is about a board ‘seeing with all eyes’. If an individual hasn’t been to a particular country, for instance, how can they have a credible perspective on it? The more perspectives you have around the table, the more you can see. This ensures that you turn all the stones and see all the opportunities open to you.”
What is the state of board diversity in the UK? “We’re on a journey. There’s 30 per cent female representation on FTSE-100 boards, but progress is too slow. Gender diversity is opening the discussion, but there’s much work to do on ethnic and generational diversity, LGBT+ inclusion and social mobility. Members of certain generations still tend to recruit people with similar backgrounds. A board of seven engineers born in the 1960s won’t make good decisions, no matter how intelligent they are, because they can’t see with all eyes for the life of them.”
Which recent business controversies exemplify poor governance? “BHS is a clear one. For a board to allow a company with so many employees to go wrong, there was clearly a very low level of corporate governance. In the third sector, the collapse of Kids Company was particularly unfortunate because people give to charity to make the world a better place. It’s clear that board members in both cases didn’t ask the questions they should have been asking.”
You’re an advocate of mentoring. what role does it play in governance? “I particularly value reverse mentoring, which I started a few years ago. I’m now on my third mentor aged 18 to 25. They tell me what it means to be a digital native, what influences them, where they get their news, where they shop, how they live their lives – all kinds of things that help me to make the right board decisions. If Blockbuster had had younger people on its board, would it have chosen in 2007 not to go into streaming? It didn’t move quickly enough because it didn’t have young eyes to see with.”
What makes a good chair? “It’s someone who ensures that everyone is heard, that all the talent around the table is brought out. They should be calm and a good mediator too. As a trained mediator, I’d like all directors to do mediation training because it teaches you how to get people on the top of separate mountains to a place where they can agree and go on to explore opportunities. A chair also needs to have the firmness to make hard choices when necessary.”
How can small business owners start to establish effective governance? “For very small firms, even if you’re one or two people, create a risk matrix outlining all of your obligations and deadlines each year – your confirmation statement to Companies House and all other duties that ensure you remain compliant. It’s a structure that will stand you in good stead as you grow a bit more and, perhaps, establish a board. Then it’s time to consider what kind of people could challenge you, make your business better and make you better.”
Once a firm is well governed, what is the key to sustaining that? “Learning. Continuous professional development means just that – it never stops. The curiosity to know more should be a lifelong passion because it enriches lives and, of course, it enriches businesses as well. The day you feel you can’t learn anything more, that’s the end. Training is crucial, but so is listening. Leaders must open their ears – particularly to younger people, who can teach you how to make your company survive.”
What’s your vision for the institute? “The IoD has the important role of representing its members and lobbying policy-makers. For me, what this organisation stands for is corporate governance. Establishing better corporate governance in the UK and globally is one of my big visions. We need to continue creating the tools that enable everyone in business to have a framework from which to lead their companies well. That’s what I enjoy most and that’s why I am here.”
The chair answers IoD Members’ questions…
What lobbying is the IoD doing to ensure that all directors are qualified for the role? And will you be taking the Chartered Director programme?
Richard Smith, IoD North East
“Directorship isn’t a profession in quite the same way as law, say, and we don’t want to stop people becoming entrepreneurs, but there are certain standards that directors of large organisations should meet. We’re consulting members on our proposal to create a professional standards board, which could censure cases of poor behaviour and, in extreme cases, recommend that directors be disqualified. And yes, I’ll be doing Chartered Director. I’ll be taking the qualifying courses within the next year.”
As a managing director of an SME for 14 years, I’m considering a move into the non-exec arena. How should I proceed?
Marios Poumpouris, IoD London
“You need to be clear on what value you’ll add. There are three areas that all boards need to have covered – banking, accountancy and legal – and then there are sector specialisms. You’ll have experience in these areas as an MD, but ensure that you really know the various governance principles and tools too. If you get in at a bigger company, it can be a different game.”
Many members of the IoD work in SMEs. How can you relate to them?
David Martin, IoD South
“I experienced many of the challenges that SME owners face when I started my own companies in 2002 and 2009.Also, in my banking days I took care of lending to small firms, so I’ve a long-standing appreciation of their needs.”
How can the trustee of a charity persuade their fellow trustees of the need to improve its governance standards?
Joy Allen, IoD Northern Ireland
“When individuals go out of their way to give to a good cause, with vulnerable people often involved, the stakes are even higher than in business. Effective governance should therefore be intrinsic to any charity, so ensuring that the board is equipped to navigate difficult situations is crucial.”
IoD members can submit their questions for Charlotte Valeur by emailing email@example.com
The new chair’s CV
Charlotte Valeur began her career in 1982 as a fixed-income trader in her native Copenhagen and London. She went on to hold directorships at BNP Paribas (1992-97) and Société Générale (1998-99).
Her non- executive experience includes positions with 3i Infrastructure (2009-13) Renewable Energy Generation (2010-16); the JPMorgan Global Convertibles Income Fund (2013 onwards); NTR (2014 onwards); Phoenix Spree Deutschland (2018 onwards); and Laing O’Rourke (2018 onwards).
She has chaired numerous firms, including DW Catalyst Fund (2010-17); Kennedy Wilson Europe Real Estate (2013-17); FSN Capital, funds II to V (2013 onwards); and Blackstone/
GSO Loan Financing (2014 onwards).
Valeur’s solo ventures include Brook Street Partners (2002-11) and Global Governance Group (2009 onwards). She is also founder of Board Apprentice; a governor of the University of Westminster; and an honorary teaching fellow at Lancaster University Management School.
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