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Hay Festival: what boards can learn from Antony Beevor, Dambisa Moyo & Afua Hirsch



Recently at the Hay Festival, I had the good fortune on the same day to attend three great talks by three impressive speakers and, during audience questions, to ask them three linked questions the answers to which, perhaps surprisingly, all have relevance to boards.


Historian Antony Beevor talked about his new book, Arnhem: The Battle For The Bridges, 1944 in which he describes, almost on an hour by hour basis, that devastating defeat. I asked him if there was any evidence around the behaviour of the decision-makers involved in the plan, codenamed Operation Market Garden.


It turns out that the behaviour that led to the decision-making errors was appalling. However, nothing that would surprise many board directors today in business: overconfidence, wrong or skewed intelligence, last minute changes, poor communications and above all, vanity.


As with many boards, dissenting voices were neither encouraged nor heeded. One member of the military team saw the flaws in the plan but was ignored and sidelined, a regular occurrence in business.


I acknowledge that the war context is wholly different in implications than in peacetime business and is not comparable, but the behaviour is identical.


Dambisa Moyo is a prize-winning economist, and author of Winner Take All and Dead Aid. Her talk at Hay was about her new book Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth - and How to Fix It. While I struggle with her ideas on "weighted voting" I find her analysis of the negative impact of short-termism compelling.


I asked her about her views on the growing trend in using ESG (Environment, Society & Governance) metrics in decision-making. She supports these but takes an even more radical view of what needs to done to fix the "myopia" as she sees it.


Boards who want to be more effective might take note of her anecdote about a study in 2013 into the qualities of those who survive Navy Seal Training which revealed that "the top indicator of [success] was a high level of expertise in chess" and not physical fitness. "Chess players are strategic thinkers who see beyond the next move or the next challenge" Her point is an antidote to the short-termism so prevalent on boards.


Author and journalist Afua Hirsh spoke about her experiences as a British person of colour and her recently published, and controversial, book: Brit(ish): On race, Identity and Belonging. She appears willing, and not to everyone's liking, to confront the past.


I asked her if she felt that a truth and reconciliation process could help heal the wounds caused by the "amnesia of Empire" as Gideon Rachman once described it in a piece last year the Financial Times. She replied that such a process would be way above her more basic expectation that people should merely treat each other with respect.


What has this to do with board behaviour? The relevance is to do with corporate history and that brutal behaviour in organisations that can mirror the barbaric practice of governments.


These linger in memory and impact company cultures long after the original trauma. The behaviour at RBS as described in Shredded - Inside RBS The Bank That Broke Britain by Ian Fraser is a good example. RBS is still not sorted. Perhaps a truth & reconciliation process might have helped it sort itself faster.


Once, I suggested a truth & reconciliation process to a client board, which had experienced significant levels of conflict. One director was unimpressed by my "emotive language" in recommending this. The implication was that, whatever its faults, the business wasn't dysfunctional enough to need such a dramatic process.


I disagreed. Truth and reconciliation must become a universal process if we are all to thrive and not just in extreme situations as in South Africa where a formal process helped avoid a bloodbath in the early nineties.


Truth and reconciliation are the linking themes between Beevor, Moyo and Hirsch. What are the facts? What was the pain? Now, how can we learn from that and work better together?


I recommend Hay. It makes you not just think more deeply about issues, but feel more deeply about them too. Boards could do worse than to spend a few days there next year. It might help them become more truthful and reconciling, if not more "effective".


Ciarán Fenton

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