Keeping the Plates Spinning: balancing good governance with financial sustainability

Emma Howard-Boyd reflects on the changing face of governance, both in terms of the skills matrix and evolving attitudes to diversity. She shares her hopes for the success of the Global Commission on Adaptation and considers the implications the Commission might have for approaches to sustainability, both at home and abroad.

Since you took on the role of Chair at the Environment Agency, what would you describe as your greatest successes?
I’m delighted to have recently had my second term as Chair of the Environment Agency confirmed, which is a great pleasure given all the uncertainty currently. It’s great to be able to bring that aspect of certainty to the organisation.

It’s difficult to really know where to start with talking about what I would say my greatest successes have been! The main thing to emphasise I suppose is in terms really of what the Environment Agency does: we’re all about creating a better environment for people, wildlife and the economy. If I think back to when I was first asked to become Chair, my aims at that point were all about trying to stabilise the organisation following the major flooding across the UK in 2015/16. My priority was rebuilding trust both with the public and our employees. At this point I think it’s important to acknowledge that everything I do is very much in partnership with the executive. It’s a team effort, and it’s vital that the Chair always works very closely with the Chief Executive and their team. By working together in partnership, I think we’ve very much achieved that goal.

Also of huge importance during my time as Chair has been the 25 Year Environment Plan which was launched by the Prime Minister at the start of last year. This has been a really important step towards embedding environmental issues into the heart of government decision-making. It was an ambitious document that has now been followed up with an Environment Bill and we have played a part in making sure that the country is working hard to deliver on that across the many agendas we work on.

I think I’ve also played an important role in furthering the case for business investment in climate adaptation and in making communities across the country more resilient to the risks of climate change.

You have shown real commitment to diversity and inclusion during your tenure as Chair so far. How have you delivered on this important area, and what has been the impact of it?
I have been part of the 30% Club’s work on diversity more or less since the start of that campaign ten years ago. Throughout my time on the board of the Environment Agency I’ve been one of the champions of diversity, although I think it’s always really important to differentiate between the roles of the executive and non-executive teams. My role has been to be a champion of and to encourage the executive team to do the real hard work in developing our diversity agenda.

Crucially, this hasn’t just been through a gender lens, although that was an initial focus. We publish pay gap data on average earnings for differences in disability, race, religion and belief and sexual orientation, as well as gender. We’ve got a long way to go but I’m confident that having high-quality data on the drivers of pay gaps will help us improve action.

“My role has been to be a champion of and to encourage the executive team to do the real hard work in developing our diversity agenda.”

Target setting has been hugely important for this. We have a very gender-balanced board at the Environment Agency and while board appointments are ultimately made by the Secretary of State, I have been very focused on making sure we are attracting diverse candidates.

We now also have targets for our executive recruitments across different levels. Given that some of our staff are from quite specialised professions, for example, engineering, we have set different targets for different disciplines. We know that in disciplines like engineering we are naturally starting from a lower base level when it comes to diversity, so our targets here are more around trying to encourage more women to become engineers. We know that in these cases you have to start really early for the pool of engineers to be allowed to grow to the point where we can recruit from it.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been particularly proud of the work we’ve done in partnership with the Down’s Syndrome Association’s WorkFit programme. All four of our National Laboratory Service labs now provide permanent paid work opportunities to people with Down’s syndrome, and on the back of our success, DEFRA is now also partnering with the WorkFit programme. Some of my colleagues were even invited last year to speak at the United Nations World Down’s Syndrome Day conference in New York about the enormous benefits the scheme has brought both to those we now employ and to the organisation as a whole.

We always need to emphasise that we want the best talent, but we simultaneously need to make sure that our recruitment processes are unbiased so that candidates covering all aspects of diversity come through. That means recognising some of the biases without putting in positive discrimination, whether that is as simple as looking at CVs from a blind perspective.


“We want the best talent, but we simultaneously need to make sure that our recruitment processes are unbiased.”


Driving forward the organisation’s digital agenda has been a key focus for the EA in recent years. Has this posed particular challenges in terms of the organisation’s governance?

It’s so important when you’re looking at board recruitment to make sure that you’re bringing in as much experience as you can, across a whole range of different issues. I think in recent recruitment we haven’t necessarily set out to find specific digital skills, but we’ve been lucky enough to have found it within the individuals now on the board.

I think that’s the real challenge you face in wanting to build a board that is very much focused on the future and driving forward on an organisation’s agenda. If you target too tightly the skills you believe will help you to get there, you can end up with a very narrow expertise. I’m always keen to make sure that people are able to bring expertise drawn from leadership roles elsewhere. If you get the right person with a broad range of expertise, there can often be unexpected benefits for your organisation.

For example, one of our board members still works in an executive capacity in the retail sector and has brought with them knowledge of a wealth of different applications for data that can help in our understanding of both the risks and opportunities that data can bring.

Above all else, I’m looking for my board to have a good understanding of the very best of the public, private and third sectors. The Environment Agency is present across the country and plays a pivotal role in engaging both with local government, other government agencies, environmental NGOs as well as the private sector. We need to understand our work and have people who can help with our strategic thinking from all of those angles. The best leaders need to have experience of how each of those sectors come together to solve the big issues of today.

How would you describe the role of the Chair in supporting the executive leadership team? What makes this relationship successful?

It’s very much about striking a balance. You have to have a clear understanding of your respective roles as a Chair and an executive and ensure that both parties have a firm grasp of the boundaries between the two: it needs to be something you’re able to have a good discussion about. I think building a good, supportive relationship with your chief executive, where you can have challenge mixed with encouragement and constructive support, is vital to getting this right. I’ve seen so many examples in my career where that relationship, if you’ve got it wrong, can lead to all sorts of issues.

Nor can it be too cosy. I think there needs to be a very mutual respect and acknowledgement of boundaries. Being able to work closely together but also able to challenge is key to helping an organisation in all aspects of what it’s dealing with.

I meet regularly with our chief executive and also have regular updates with the rest of the executive directors team and I feel that there’s a real openness in terms of how we work together, but it remains very respectful. At the end of the day, it is the chief executive who has the responsibility to actually deliver the strategy of the Environment Agency.


“The key to striking the balance is finding something you’re passionate about doing.”


You have 25 years’ experience working in the private sector, latterly with a focus on environmental sustainability in finance. What drove your decision to make the move from the private to public sector when taking on a non-executive role?

I started taking on non-executive roles very early in my career and was always encouraged to do so. I do think that sitting on boards – whether it’s charities, trade associations, government commissions – is a really positive additional development for an individual’s career. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in something else in addition to my executive career, either from a board or an advisory committee perspective.

Provided you can find the time to balance it with your main executive role, I think this is always something people should consider taking on. There are so many different roles that people can take on it the community, being a school governor etc. that will give you an insight into running an organisation that will benefit you through your executive career.

For me, the key to striking the balance is finding something you’re passionate about doing. I wouldn’t sit on a board just for the sake of doing it: it has to make sense either because it’s something you’re passionate about or because there can be some sort of mutual enhancement for your executive career. It’s about being connected to the real world. It can give you a very different outlook on your work if you’re involved in something related to the work you do but with a different perspective.

What would be the most important advice you would give to someone looking to make a similar transition? Are there particular considerations for women keen to explore non-executive opportunities in the public sector?

It’s important to get it right. It can take time to get your first non-executive appointment, which is why starting early and perhaps building up from advisory boards or sub-committees can help develop that sense of what it is to be a non-executive.

Again, it really does come back to making sure it’s something you’re passionate about. If the organisation goes through a period of instability or crisis, you may well be required to roll up your sleeves and put some more time and effort into it. From that perspective, it’s also important that you’ve understood the time commitment and that you’re able to fulfil your responsibilities not just during ‘business as usual’ times, but also through periods where the role might be more demanding.

Don’t give up on the executive role too soon. There are skills and knowledge you can absolutely bring to an executive role by sitting on a board but think carefully about the right time to ‘go plural’. You’ve got to recognise that it does take time to build up a portfolio of non-executive roles. I don’t think you just suddenly think about retiring and go “here we go!” and therefore the sooner you start thinking about making sure your CV and experience can be transformed into a board-ready profile, the more effective you will be once you choose to make the move.

Gender diversity is something that’s so close to my heart, particularly as a result of my work with the 30% Club, and I strongly believe that boardrooms who limit themselves to 50 per cent of the available talent will always fail to understand 100 per cent of their customers. In the era of #MeToo, diversity and inclusion also help businesses stay one step ahead of competitors.

There’s a great role for women to play in encouraging their peers, whether it’s going for promotions as part of an executive career or putting themselves forward for non-executive roles. Often in my early career, my greatest successes came because someone took me aside and said, “I’ve just spotted this and think you should go for it”.

I think we can all play a role in encouraging both men and women to push themselves and their careers. Don’t assume that someone else will be thinking about a role you might have seen, even if it seems like the most obvious fit in the world to you. We should be cheerleaders for other people and help give them that confidence to put their names forward.


“In the era of #MeToo, diversity and inclusion also help businesses stay one step ahead of competitors.”


Following your success as Chair of the EA, you were appointed as the UK’s Commissioner on the Global Commission on Adaptation towards the end of 2018. Can you tell us a bit about the ambitions of the Commission and the challenges and opportunities your role might present?

One of the issues that I’m very focused on is climate change, and I’ve spent a great deal of time over my career thinking about that in the context of business investment and how we need to transition to a low-carbon economy. This is particularly relevant in terms of things like the Paris Agreement.

At the same time, we’ve also had warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October that say we have less than 12 years to get on track otherwise we are due to see an increased number of weather-related incidents like floods.

When I was invited to join the Global Commission on Adaptation, what really attracted me to the role was the fact that often adapting to climate change and the resilience agenda has felt like the poor relation to the transition to a low-carbon economy. I felt that this was a huge opportunity to really put the importance of ensuring that communities, cities and countries across the world are made resilient to the physical risks of climate change at the centre of what we do.

The first year will be focused on pulling together global research and analysis. Led by Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates, and Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank, the GCA will present an agenda for scaling up adaptation ahead of the UN Climate Summit in September. A key part of that will be looking at finance resilience.

The second year will be all about action. People need to start asking questions about their organisations’ abilities to manage climate change. Do they have the right skills on their board to manage climate change? Are they properly considering their environmental impact? Are boards putting aside capital expenditure for resilience measures to ensure business continuity?

Even in my most positive moments I don’t pretend that green finance is now mainstream, but I do think something is beginning to take shape.

How important is international partnership in ensuring the UK’s future resilience against the impact of global climate change?

I think this is absolutely key, particularly in relation to the work the Environment Agency does on flooding and coastal risk management. Indeed, we recently launched a draft Flood Strategy that seeks to change the way we invest in flood management to address climate change. We have also done a lot of work into prolonged dry weather and drought. Our Chief Executive Sir James Bevan highlighted this at the Waterwise Conference in London earlier this year. He warned that within 20 to 25 years we could face a situation where we won’t have enough water to supply our needs.

It’s really so important that the environment and climate change are seen as fundamental to a healthy economy and the wellbeing of individuals as opposed to an added extra.

I had the huge privilege of attending the premier of the new Netflix documentary series, ‘Our Planet’ recently, and I strongly believe that whatever sector you work in there needs to be a far greater recognition of the importance of a healthy environment and that doesn’t just relate to climate change but also to the importance of nature and the natural environment.

We have a lot to share internationally, and also a lot to learn. Given the urgency, we need to make sure we’re learning those lessons very quickly by highlighting the work that’s taking place in different parts of the world and how the UK, both through the Environment Agency and through other parts of government such as the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, is leading on climate change and diplomacy. I think it’s really important that we’re able to recognise the leadership and expertise that the country already has.


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