The IoD’s newly installed director general outlines his plans to take the organisation forward and expand its horizons
‘The Chinese have a saying: ‘The fish rots from the head.’ Not this head.”
So begins Director’s first interview with the IoD’s new director general. Initial impressions can be deceptive, but this appears to be quintessential Jon Geldart.
The former PwC and Grant Thornton executive, a marketer by trade who has become a leading expert on China, was appointed in November 2019 with a brief to refresh the IoD’s relationship with, and offering to, its members – and to make it more relevant to the directors of the future.
Geldart made an instant impact during his first week in the job when, on being shown to his office, he ordered its walls to be taken down. He says with a laugh that this story has been embellished to apocryphal proportions, but it is clear that some welcome winds of change are already blowing through the corridors of 116 Pall Mall. He has refused the traditional tenure afforded to the DG; he is taking half the salary that his predecessor was paid; and he gave staff extra time off at Christmas to thank them for their efforts during “a tough year”.
Landing the role was, in some ways, an accident. Geldart had, in his own words, “retired hurt” from Grant Thornton International for health reasons. After he recovered, the chance to lead the IoD came along at just the right time.
“I’d admired the institute, both from afar and from closer in, for some time,” says Geldart, who spent more than three years serving as a volunteer, a branch chair and regional chair for IoD Yorkshire and North East. “I felt I could do something to build on the amazing job the board has done in the past 12 months.”
No wilful failures
As someone who has spent more than two decades honing the marketing strategies of two huge accounting firms, Geldart knows the importance of strong branding better than most. He describes the IoD’s as being “under-leveraged. It is a really good brand, but some rough edges just require smoothing off. It needs to shine again.”
How, then, does he plan to do this?
“The IoD is about the legacy we leave the generations of directors to come. It’s a 100-year vision,” Geldart says.
This legacy will be based on the core principle that there should be no “wilful” corporate failure, as he explains: “I say ‘wilful’ because organisations go bust, which does need to happen occasionally in order for things to change – sometimes this is caused by black-swan events and other crises beyond their control. But there shouldn’t be any reason for organisations to fail wilfully through poor management. The IoD is uniquely placed to train and support directors to be the best that they can be. And it can create opportunity and a sustainable future for the next generation of enterprises and their leaders.”
In practical terms, the IoD’s ability to bring future leaders into the fold hinges on how it develops and markets offerings such as the “world-class” courses it delivers, according to Geldart.
“I spoke to a member taking a course in the IoD Academy this morning. They told me that it was one of the best they had ever been on,” he reports. “We should be doing that more for a larger number of people across the UK.”
He praises the IoD’s chair, Charlotte Valeur, for her “fixation” on talking to universities about partnerships and how the institute’s courses could be offered to their students. Taking her lead, he has visited both the University of Leeds and the University of the West of England, Bristol, in the week of this interview.
“I took the time to sit and talk with some of the students. It was wonderful,” he says. “They’d never heard of the IoD, but they have now. It’s for them to decide whether we are relevant to them, but we will try to be as relevant as we can be.”
To get to that point, he wants to tap into an idea that has gained momentum, particularly among younger generations: that enterprisees have to exist for something more than financial gain. He refers to “Larry’s letter”, the missive that BlackRock’s CEO, Laurence Fink, writes as part of the asset management firm’s annual report. Fink caused a stir in 2018 when he discussed the need to link profit with purpose and admitted that his industry was too short-termist.
“People don’t just work for money,” Geldart says. “The world has changed – enterprise is now about purpose. If you don’t have a purpose, you probably don’t have a business. It’s as simple as that…”
The full article can be read in the February / March 2020 issue of Director magazine
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