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Dream Bigger: The NED's Role in The Growth Agenda - Commentary from Jacqueline de Rojas, CBE

Tuesday 18 June 2019

Dream Bigger: The NED's Role in The Growth Agenda - Commentary from Jacqueline de Rojas, CBE


Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, was the keynote speaker at the NEDA 2019 Contemporary NED Event, held on Tuesday 14th May, in collaboration with Smith & Williamson and EquityChair. 


Jacqueline has a wealth of experience as both a NED on a number of PLC Boards and also working with a number of Technology Advisory Boards.  Her current roles include:

President – techUK 
President – Digital Leaders
Co-Chair – Institute of Coding
NED – Rightmove plc, CostainGroup plc, AO World plc

A summary of Jacqueline's Speech is included below:

Boards and Technology – What are the 4 areas Boards are in control of and how can these help with growth?


1. Data Management

The moment a Board recognises the importance of ‘data’, it helps with growth as it increases its go to market potential.  

It is important that companies and their Boards take the following key points into account when using and assessing data:

  • Ensure that data is clean.
  • Adheres to Privacy Rules (particularly taking into account the 2018 General Data Protection Regulations).
  • Consider the impact of data as part of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, this will impact white collar workers as much as blue collar workers and companies will be judged by the data they keep and store. It is likely that new metrics will ensue.

2. Technlogy Security

The rise of technology has meant we live in a much more connected world, whilst this has many advantages it does mean that our lives are “hackable”.

Companies need to ensure that they are considering the security implications for their organisations.  Currently 70% of money spent on security for organisations is spent after a security breach takes place, this should not be the case.

Companies need to sense check their risk registers, especially assessing safeguards around  their technology security.  The key questions asked are:

  • How do you manage phishing attacks?
  • How do you control privileged accesses? 
  • How do you keep software patching up to date?
  • What do our suppliers do about all of these areas?
  • How do you manage authentications?

And perhaps one final question…How do you manage an incident when it occurs?

These are basic questions, which reflect the majority of security attacks and which themselves are often very basic. Take the Wannacry incident that happened last year and attributed to North Korea. It affected a large part of the NHS not because the NHS is an easy ransom target but because the software and hardware was so outdated, that it became collateral damage.

Organisations that are growing need to ask themselves these types of question, and therefore NEDs must make sure these questions are being asked at the board table.

3. Skills Development 

Remarkably 25% of SME organisations in the UK do not yet have a web presence. The government would do well to consider tax breaks for opex and not just capex, so that smaller businesses can afford to access technology via cloud solutions rather than having to invest in capital expenditure.

90% of organisations have some sort of technology debt, and therefore are not up to date with current thinking. The board would do well to ask the question of the executive team to assess the level of technology debt (How far behind current technology are we and what investment is needed to bring us up to date?)

Facing into the fourth industrial revolution it is not the rise of the robots that we need to worry about but how quickly we can reskill ourselves every ten years or less. If we are to keep pace with innovation and if we are to fill the 1.2m jobs that tech will create by 2022, we need to find ways to reskill the nation. NEDs, employees and their companies need to consider their personal commitment to lifelong learning. 

For leadership, you’ve got to figure out what skills you will need in this new world and that’s pretty hard – automation and commoditisation is upon us. We’ve got to train ourselves for jobs that don’t exist yet and prepare for problems that we don’t know the shape of and can’t even begin to guess. It’s a seemingly impossible task but it leaves us with transferable skills. Those of problem solving, empathy and emotional intelligence – all of the things that machines can’t do. These are the kinds of skills we’ll need to look for in tomorrow’s workplace.

We also have to learn where the outliers are. Machines will certainly be able to take on the obvious but not the things with important nuances. Tools like virtual assistants are great at managing inboxes most of the time but for example, an invite for me to appear on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs was filed in junk by my virtual assistant – so thank goodness I’m a forensic double-checker. We somehow need to iron out these kinks with good old-fashioned human comprehension.

Of course, when it comes to ensuring we can attract the right skills – it’s not just about understanding what skills we need but how to attract them when we have no idea where the business is going! Clarity and storytelling are really important for this. Companies that are able to tell their story in an attractive, exciting, future-proofed way are going to win. Your chief people officer and chief diversity officer will be your biggest storytellers of the future. That’s where your succession and pipeline planning will come from. This is a real human opportunity and one I think could be easily bypassed by a company dependent on process.

4. Diversity

Leaders who are looking to the future need to look outwards not inwards by adopting an inclusive strategy. If algorithms are going to decide whether you get a university place, a job interview or a mortgage, we need to ensure they are built with everyone in mind. We must worry about who is building our tech and we must have all voices at the design table if we are to build a world that works for everyone. Let’s face it women and children died when the seatbelt was invented because they were built by men of a certain weight and height. We can’t afford for this to happen in tech.

A final thought then.... Great outcomes happen when we make room for collaboration. Business seems to have evolved to celebrate the brilliant lone wolf. But actually, diverse and collaborative teams are proven to make better decisions. So, whatever happens in the future, whether we still come to work in an office or whether we’re more spread out and working where our individual projects hasten to be – we have to enable the creation of cohorts, the sharing of ideas and experience. Together we are most certainly stronger.

 NEDs and organisations generally should note that algorithms are already responsible for most of the decisions that are made today.  For example, algorithms are responsible for what advertisements we see, the universities students get into and the jobs that we have interviews for. If algorithms are not built with diversity in the design team there will be a knock-on effect in terms of diversity being under-represented in the modern world.

NEDs need to be asking who is designing and building the algorithms in their company and ensuring that there is diversity throughout the organisation. This diversity needs to be focussed on all areas and should go beyond the traditional focus of gender diversity. All minority voices matter in our digital future. If it is not diverse it is simply not ethical.

Attracting diverse talent for any organisation can be tough, ‘STEM’-based talent (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) can be hard to hire and a relatively small population to draw from can lead to wage inflation.  Similarly, diversity is not always comfortable in terms of being open to taking more risk, and as such diversity is central to how boardroom activity should be evolving. Chairs of boards should consider hiring NEDs who do not necessarily have a vast amount of ‘NED experience’, but can bring in new thinking, diverse skills and talent in areas such as digital and people-related areas.

Finally, boards still need to take corporate governance seriously. Governance has been going through huge change, particularly over the last eighteen months, and NEDs need to ensure that their company is receptive to encouraging and promoting the essential governance procedures, as the organisation grows and develops.