Interview: Jenny Ashmore

Interview: Jenny Ashmore

Jenny Ashmore combines running her own consultancy, Jazz Works, with roles as President of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, Chairman of the Board of The Guide Association Trading Services Ltd and NED for Commonwealth Games England. Her corporate career included stints as Group Chief Marketing Officer for SSE plc (formerly Scottish and Southern Energy plc), Group Chief Marketing Officer for Yell Group plc, plus experience with Mars, Procter & Gamble, Shell Petroleum and British Gas. She has an MBA from Warwick Business School.

Her most recent NED position at Saffron Building Society came through Warren Partners.

When and why did you take on your first NED role?

In 2010, someone I knew who was Chief Executive of the charity Girlguiding UK approached me. They were looking for an NED with commercial experience to help with their trading arm, Girl Guides Trading Services Ltd. In my early 20s I was involved in the Girl Guides at a national level, so I jumped at the chance.

Actually, I think the real reason she asked me was chocolate! I was working in a commercial role at Mars at the time and the woman who’d been the NED before me was with Cadbury’s, but had moved to Switzerland. So I think my friend asked me because she said to herself “Oh chocolate, I know somebody who works in chocolate...”

It was only once I’d got involved and started to read up on the roles and responsibilities that I realised what an interesting and important role NEDs have to play.

When I first started to think about NED roles, the Women on Boards network was really helpful. They opened my eyes to the sheer breadth of roles that are out there. I had no idea the number of government committees, housing associations and health organisations in addition to listed businesses that use NED support.

What level of experience you see as the ideal launch-pad for an NED career?

My corporate background has certainly helped. Procter & Gamble and Mars are both great ‘academy companies’ - Shell too, in its own way. You get phenomenal training and come away with a really robust grounding in business. These types of organisations tend to move you around quite a bit, so you also gain a lot of experience.

But a corporate background isn’t right for every role. In the health service or in government NED roles it’s important to have an understanding of the political and regulatory landscape and ways of working specific to those sectors.

It’s also very important to be consciously aware of your own value-add and to find roles that fit your experience, knowledge and business approach.

Doing an MBA did give me a lot of confidence. In fact, when I first got involved as a NED, I literally pulled my files and textbooks off the shelf to refresh my knowledge of specific areas such as financial ratios, governance responsibilities and strategy – so having studied that as part of my MBA was tremendously useful.

Why have you chosen the portfolio that you have?

It has really been about reaching out to my network and saying “Look I’m at this point in my life where I want a change and these are the things that I’m passionate about; sports, charities, ethical business models and how technology is a game-changer in those areas. So I let people know I was looking for something interesting involving new business start-ups, consultancy or support in those spaces.”

The organisations I am currently working with whilst all quite different, complement each other. So although my latest NED role is in the financial services sector at Saffron Building Society, as it’s member-based, parts are not worlds apart from the types of issues we face at the Chartered Marketing Institute (CMI) where I am President.

I do ensure that the roles I take on enable me to transfer my skills and experience across sectors. As an example, my digital background is proving very useful across a range of different contexts. That said, it is important to be very clear to yourself and others when articulating the value you can add to a new sector, and I am greatly appreciative for the interview tips and advice I received from Warren Partners during the thorough interview process for the Saffron role.

What are your views on female NED diversity in general?

The ‘better balance of men/women’ mantra is all very well, but I think it can blind us to the fact that diversity is about more than just gender. I always think that one of the real test is when you look at an organisation’s customers and ask whether the board reflects who they are and what they are concerned about. If there is a mismatch in terms of gender, race or whatever then I think that is an issue, because it means that there is a lack of understanding of the likely customer or public response.

As you look back at what’s gone wrong over the past few years, it’s impossible to avoid the issue of ‘group-think’. This can clearly be a real problem at board level. Some companies seem to have a culture where it’s just not acceptable to put a different view forward. The onus really needs to be on the Chair to encourage different points of view and real discussion. When someone says “well I don’t see it like that at all,” this should be welcomed rather than met with resistance.

You do need a degree of personal courage to be an NED, because it’s your job to be the one who says, “I’ve listened to what all of you are saying and I agree to a certain extent but here’s what’s on my mind and it is quite different.”

How do you see the role of the NED changing or evolving?

The NED role is continuously evolving. At the moment I would say that there's a lot of focus on governance and regulation in business, whereas a few years ago there was a lot more about cost-cutting and efficiency.

I think that organisations are going to have to learn to live with tougher regulation, because it’s a public demand. People feel that businesses haven’t behaved in a way that’s good for Society as a whole, so NEDs need to understand regulation and how to innovate within regulation in a way that’s responsible and aligned to a strong moral compass. And this needs to be communicated out to shareholders, stakeholders and the wider public.

I would also say that the world of work seems to be evolving, following these years associated with austerity. In 10 years time, the challenges will of course be different again. Years ago, Charles Handy talked about ‘shamrock organisations’ that have a small core staff and bring in expertise from outside as and when needed. This means fewer people as full-time employees and far more with project-based jobs or portfolio careers and working remotely. This area is just another example of how it is important for NEDs to stay abreast of new trends and the challenges that businesses will face as a result of change.

What qualities in particular do you feel that you bring to an NED role?

Personally, it really energises me to bring an external lens of perspective to a business. As it’s not a full-time role, you have to make sure you’re helping to move the organisation forward strategically in a way that will sustain it for the longer term. Beyond the core governance areas, it’s often a question of focus as where you place the effort for future success of the organisation.

My own experience is that many of the core challenges faced by commercial and not-for-profit organisations are surprisingly similar. In both cases, I’m able to draw upon my own business background and also the network that I have built over the years, to help organisations to avoid making mistakes and errors of judgement that I have come across in the past.

I do think that the combination of NED experience with a hands-on executive role helps you to stay fresh and at the cutting edge of business issues. A mixed portfolio also offers many more opportunities to network, and it means that I can reach out and connect people from different walks of life, sectors etc who may never have had the opportunity to engage otherwise.

Any advice to prospective NEDs?

Yes. For goodness sake don't take a NED role in an area that you're not genuinely passionate about! Be authentic. What fires you up and makes you passionate? What do you genuinely find interesting? Where can you truly add extra perspective or experience? Only then will you truly be able to make a real difference to the organisation(s) that you have chosen to work with. Finally, ensure that when you get there you spend time with the team to listen and understand, so that the whole team can really deliver!

Posted by Joëlle Warren on

Joëlle Warren

Joëlle Warren

Executive Chair & Founding Partner

Joëlle is Executive Chair & Founding Partner of Warren Partners and leads chair and non-executive director searches.