Sue Primmer’s current portfolio of boardroom roles are in the public sector and membership bodies. She is a NED at the Chartered Banker Institute and chair the remuneration committee. Her other appointments are for a PR agency that specialises in STEM subjects and advisor to the UK Department of Trade and Industry on export of intellectual property.
Her great joy in life is being a trustee for a charity whose mission it is to get young people coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to consider banking careers, supporting them with funding and mentoring.
What useful advice would you give to someone who is at the beginning of their boardroom career?
I have been fortunate in that roles have naturally just come to me during my executive career. Although, I would say that it is a good investment to build a meaningful network. Get out there and talk to a lot of people, share the things you positively care about, then connections will naturally form themselves. This is when the right roles eventually will come to you.
The other important advice I would give is that it is a lot of work to be on a board. If it says two days a month, I would double it and then add some. If you are going to do it well and take it seriously, then it is a considerable commitment.
It is also really important to do due diligence around the chair and the other board members. You take on a huge legal responsibility, so it is essential to get your head around the laws governing whatever sector or organisation you are on the board of. But don’t forget to also to enjoy it!
How did you make the transition into becoming a NED? How do you keep up to date and on top of being in ‘good shape’ in the Boardroom?
It was when I went to a networking event where the topic was around boardroom when I opened my eyes to becoming a NED. I later had someone helping me to write a CV targetted to the boardroom. I also joined a program to become boardroom ready. It was helpful to have an outside perspective when writing my profile. I think authenticity really matters, because the board will test you to your core, so it is important to have a robust mindset.
In terms of being in ‘good shape’, I try to keep a healthy mindset in a healthy body. I run a few times a week and often work through problems on my run. I learn a lot from other NEDs and sit on boards with people who have run large organisations. I also have invaluable informal mentors, who I have met throughout my career, stretching from the chair of the Russell Group to a bishop enriching my vision and encourage me to look through different lenses.
What has been the best and the worst thing about being a NED, the biggest challenge and the most valuable thing you've learnt so far?
The best thing for me is that it makes me feel alive by the way it expands my mind through meeting new people, experiencing new situations and facing new challenges. The worst thing is realising that things may not change as fast as you would like them to because you are not there to do that bit. Which brings me on to the challenge of wanting to roll up your sleeves and do it, but that is not what you are there to do. It is important to keep yourself on the right side of that line. You are there to listen, ask challenging questions and new perspectives.
My most challenging moment was going through a merger while managing all the stakeholders and integrating and aligning values. The most valuable learning is knowing that the NED role is open to everyone, from all backgrounds, and you do not have to be over 50 to do this. I wish more people would start thinking about building a NED portfolio earlier in their careers. You can begin by sitting on a school governing body, local hospital or charity and see what you could bring to them.
I would love to explode the world with a rainbow of NEDs because we need more talent coming from more diverse perspectives in the boardroom to be able to address the complex challenges we are faced with today. Anyone can learn the skills, develop the knowledge and nurture the right mindset for the boardroom. There are courses, mentors and coaches out there to help you. You just need to be brave to take that first step.
NEDs are supposed to bring wisdom to the boardroom. What does that mean and how would you describe a wise NED?
I think that being a wise NED comes from having had life experience - and you can be young, but still have had a lot of life experience. Wisdom is also about listening and learning, being empathetic to others’ viewpoints even though you might not agree with them.
Someone who is wise has integrity, is highly self-aware and has an ability to challenge themself.
What do you do to step out of your ‘echo chamber’ to challenge your own thinking and broaden your mindset and perspective?
I live quite a diverse life partly because of my own background but also through my work and private life. It is about the juxtaposition of things, constantly stopping me being in a silo and getting me to think about something completely different that I had not been thinking about before that keeps me fresh and on my toes.
What transferrable learnings and different perspective could you take to the boardroom from your life outside your work and professional life?
Outside my world of work, it would have to be gardening. You are faced with conditions where some plants will survive and some won’t, sometimes because of unpredictable external events such as frost and floods. However, I believe if you really listen and understand each plant’s needs, you are more likely to nurture each in the right way in terms of soil, water and and pruning. With the right tender, love and care they will go on to thrive.
I remember when my father, who was a great musician and conductor of orchestras, retired to the Welsh mountainside, he planted up 10 acres with the most beautiful garden. He stood there and in a somewhat melodramatic way said, ‘this is my last great performance'. We looked around and the garden was just frantically singing, because he knew what he was doing with the colours, the trees and having a belief that a weed is beautiful, but sometimes just in the wrong place. There is no such thing as the wrong person, however there is often the wrong person in the wrong role.
Your role as a NED is somewhat like being a gardener, you are there to help curate the organisation for a while and then you need to know when it is time to leave it alone.
What question would you like to ask a peer NED yourself?
I would challenge all NEDs to ask themselves “What am I doing to onboard my successor, or find someone else this board needs, who is as unlike me as possible?”
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