Board Talk: Interview with Tom Ilube CBE, Founder and CEO of Crossword Cybersecurity

We were delighted to speak with Tom Ilube CBE, Founder and CEO of Crossword Cybersecurity. He reflects on the importance of data security and why the rapid pace of technology change should be considered at board level, and what he considers the successful balance between the executive and non-executive relationship. He also talks about why he has set up his own charitable initiatives in areas of Africa to bring life opportunities and a different approach to story-telling in the future.


What leads you to choose the non-executive work that you do?
I would say more of it chooses me. I am fairly new into my non-executive career and when I was thinking about where I should start and how I should get it into it I was approached by two organisations, both of which I am now involved in. So really I was chosen instead of looking for myself up until this point.

I do now seem to get approached on a fairly regular basis so people are considering me more and more for roles.  At this point I really don’t have capacity but it is interesting to see the opportunities coming through.

Reflecting on your own experience so far in your non-executive career, how would you say that you know that you’ve made the right decision in joining an organisation’s board?
I think knowing I have made the right decision is based on a combination of whether I believe that I bring expertise, experience and knowledge to the board table that adds to what is already there. I don’t want to be just another face on the board making up the numbers, as it were. When I consider a board position, I really do ask myself: ”Will I genuinely bring a new perspective to these discussions that will be distinct from what I can already see is round the board table?” If the answer is yes, then I think it is the right decision for me to join.

Considering your background and experience, do you believe that technological innovation should be a strategic discussion point around the board table?
Yes, it absolutely has to be. There are a number of key aspects to it and why it must be considered so seriously at board level.

The first is the risk management aspect and that is particularly where cybersecurity comes in. Having people like me with the appropriate experience can bring something distinctive.

It is impossible to run any business of scale currently without thinking about the data security risks that face the business. If a board doesn’t have the knowledge around the table to discuss cybersecurity at a meaningful level with the executive team, it would be as fundamental as a board not being able to consider or discuss the accounts with the finance director. There are so many things that can impact a business significantly but won’t put it out of business, however if your organisation is hit with a major cyberattack or loses vast amounts of data it could absolutely put a company out of business. These are existential risks to a company and therefore a company needs to have that sort of knowledge sitting around the table to ask the right questions and discuss it in language that other board members will understand.

On the other side, if you look forwards over a period of five to ten years the impact from the wave of technologies which are being deployed now means that almost every business will be reshaped in quite fundamental ways by AI, machine learning and big data, as examples.  Therefore, boards need to have informed and knowledgeable conversations around those technologies. This needs to be both from a defensive point of view – what could happen and the risks that might occur – but also from a proactive approach – how businesses can positively develop and change.

In your experience how do UK boards compare to those in other countries when it comes to embracing technological advancement? Which sectors are faring well in this area?
There are certain pockets in other countries – Silicon Valley for example – that are much more aware of the impact of technology on their companies, but generally I find of the UK board members I have met that they are aware of these issues, and equally as aware as you see in other countries.

However, I have found that sometimes we can do a slightly cynical British thing where people feel that they have seen it all before and that we don’t need to panic or take it too seriously. I don’t know why that is, but we have do have a tendency to act in that way.  In the US particularly there is more of a willingness to accept that there could be something really different in the development of technology and that businesses need to bend their minds to it. It is not that we are blissfully unaware, it is that we are aware and that we smile with a certain superiority and think it won’t happen to us.

In terms of sectors that are embracing technology better, I would suggest that some of the financial services companies are much more aware and proactive about it. It seems that those companies which understand that data courses through their veins and recognise that when you strip it all back they are just data companies, are really getting their minds round technology and innovation at board level. I think partly it is a mindset and some people are going to be cynical whereas others embrace it and think about how they might want to tackle these issues.

In this emerging world of technology, it is the scenarios that come from left field which can have a profound effect. In the UK I think the companies that have technology right at their heart as a result of their using a lot of data understand how important it is to them. Those companies who don’t see themselves as technology-based I think may be ignoring it because they don’t think it has much to do with them, but it could well be as much to do with them as it could be with all other organisations.

Should training and skills development be undertaken to ensure that a board develops any additional skills it needs to function as well as possible?
I think yes, but it should be tailored. I have not seen a lot, if any, of the sort of training that you might give to a board for example to showcase the journey of technology innovation and the strategic implications it might bring from a non-executive board point of view.  I definitely think there needs to be that sort of training, and there is a gap for the right sort of trainers and right level of person to offer this to boards.

It would need to be different to what is offered to executives, I believe, but getting the right people with the appropriate mindset to come and have conversations with the board and help them to think about the sorts of questions one might be asking from a risk and strategic insight perspective, for example, would be a very useful and interesting exercise for many non-executives.

The right person is key and I would suggest that from a technology perspective we often get carried away with the idea of bringing in young people. There are however older people who have really excellent perspectives and who can offer insight into the strategic opportunities and considerations more than a younger, less experienced person might.

As a successful chief executive currently, can you share what you look for in your board?
For a relatively small, young company we have a very strong board with Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 as our chair.  When forming the board, I deliberately went out to look for people who would offer insight and challenge in a positive way.

When you are trying to build a company in the early stages it is really hard as you are often fighting to bring your ideas in to existence and therefore you need the type of people around the board table who will not just challenge but make suggestions to move forward. I have been on boards where there is a lot of challenge and they don’t necessarily feel it is their role to make suggestions, but with a company like Crossword we really need and indeed want the board to be putting forward ideas and suggestions, as well as holding us to account and challenging what we are doing.

Ultimately, I think one should come out of a board meeting feeling energised with new ideas and feedback on how to move on to the next stage, rather than coming out feeling exhausted or beaten up.

What is the board’s role in making sure an organisation is high performing?
At a fundamental level it is to challenge and hold executives to account. I also think it is to have high expectations for the business. When I sit with my board at Crossword, I know they are expecting me to build a big business, and they have high ambitions for me and my team. We go into meetings wanting to meet those expectations, we want to really up our game to realise their belief in us.

What is required to ensure a successful executive / non-executive relationship?
For me, currently sitting across both functions, I would say the key to this successful relationship is honesty and transparency.

In my non-executive roles, if I feel that my executives are trying to manage me and the flow of information getting to me it can feel like the type of relationship where things are being smuggled through and that is a challenging relationship. If the relationship is not like that and I know that the executives will be upfront and provide a summary of both what is going well and what the challenges are, then we can get straight into the conversation and that makes the relationship and function a lot easier.

Similarly, if I am dealing with my non-execs as an executive myself, I have the relationship where I say what is going well and what the challenges are and if their responses are measured and interested then that makes it easier.

Ultimately, companies go through good and bad bits and if you know you are going in the right direction you don’t want your board swinging one way or another from month to month. You want them to see the broader context and that is why I think trying to establish that balance of honesty and transparency at the outset will make the relationship work very well.

To what extent is candidate diversity an issue when recruiting for board members?
It is a big issue and a challenge and one that I think should be high on the agenda. I am not someone who says that I do not want to be seen as a black board member and that the only thing I want to be appointed on is merit. I am very sceptical of that thinking and I shall explain why: I am really good at what I do and therefore I do not worry that I am there to fill a quota. I think it is fair to say there are a good number of non-executives who are on boards in the UK not purely on merit: many people are there because of relationships they have built up over the years.

I firmly believe that boards will have to take risks if they want their makeup to be more diverse. They will have to consciously make the move away from the typical candidate, tenure and experience that many have used as the base point previously. The traditional career profile of 15 years as an investment banker in London, followed by 10 years in strategy or consultancy, followed by a FTSE 250 board seat is not a realistic journey for many people these days, it is really changing.

My career has certainly not gone that way. A lot of those like me who are black or Asian who started their career in the 1980s found it tough. We had to navigate our own way and move around to different companies. Even the technology industry is surprisingly lacking in diversity.  I don’t exactly know why, but if you look at the makeup of senior technology companies, you will see that boards and executives are not as diverse as you think they might be. Something is still not working in this space.

However, speaking from my own perspective as a senior black person in a boardroom (and often the only senior black person), you have to make a conscious choice as to whether you will speak about diversity issues or not. I needed to think quite carefully about it as I could become the one making noise about diversity which could impact on me getting heard about other issues. You only get so much airtime in the board and if you have used that up to make a point about diversity then when you want to make a point on something else it may be considered that you have had your say already. There is also the risk that other people stop thinking about diversity as they assume that you are going to do it.

Having said that, I have decided that if someone puts me on their board, they will have a conversation about diversity happening. I am quite comfortable having that conversation at board level in language that my colleagues will hear in a non-aggressive way. It is quite a tricky thing that people from diverse backgrounds have to think through and there isn’t a lot of support either. There aren’t many people from black and Asian backgrounds on boards, so the mentors are not out there at this stage in great numbers.

The way I approach the conversation is that for most organisations where the clients are consumers, the target market is a diverse one particularly here in UK. Demographically there are more women in this country and the ethnic minorities are growing. In order to be successful as a business you really need to understand your market and to do so you need to have decision makers and influencers all the way up to, including at board level, who really understand your market. They know and understand because they come from certain backgrounds. If you put two businesses side by side and one really understands the market then, all other things being considered equal, that one is going to win in the end.

I think there is a real genuine commercial driver for wanting increased diversity all the way up to board level. If you position it as the right thing to do then people will nod their heads and do something slightly tokenistic, but if you can get the board to see that whether it is the right thing to do or not they need to be embracing a greater diversity for the business to come out on top commercially, then I think that is the argument to be won.

In 2016 you set up the African Science Academy in Ghana. Can you share your aspirations in establishing this?  
I was born and brought up in London. My father was Nigerian and my mother is English. Whilst most of my upbringing was in England, I did move to Uganda for three years with my parents when I was eight. I came back to the UK and then moved again, aged 14, to live with my father in Nigeria to complete my education.

With the first 20 years of my career focused in London, I started to think about what I could do from a charitable perspective and specifically in Africa. What I was particularly interested in was really, seriously bright people who happen to have been born in a village or township and what happens to them.

I founded and set up the African Gifted Foundation to look for exceptionally gifted young people from across Africa and bring them into educational environments where that intellectual ability and knowledge could be leveraged.

This led to the establishment of a unique and interesting school called the African Science Academy, which we decided for various reasons to base in Ghana. We chose for this to be specifically for girls who are passionate about maths, engineering and physics, are exceptionally bright and come from very disadvantaged backgrounds. We bring them into school after their GCSEs (or equivalent) and they come and do their A-levels at our school. Because they are exceptionally bright, they are able to do them in 12 months.

Last year, 90 per cent of the girls attending the school received fully funded scholarships at universities across Africa, in the UK and the US.

It is hard work, but I would say that amongst all the varied things I have undertaken through my life this is the one thing that makes me really feel that what we have done is pretty good.

You are a founder of the Nommo Awards for African Speculative Fiction. Why is it particularly important from your perspective to encourage and celebrate this particular literary approach in today’s society?
To give you a bit of background, a few years ago I was asked if I wanted to create a coat of arms in the City of London. At the bottom of the coat of arms there is a motto underneath that you have to choose. It really got me thinking as these coats of arms will be around for many hundreds of years.

My brother and I were doing it together and we went back to an African proverb which said: ‘Until lions have their own story tellers, tales of the hunt will always favour the hunter’. It is my favourite proverb and particularly the imagery it conjures up. We distilled that down to a motto of: ‘Tell your story’ or ‘Indica tua fabula’ in Latin for the coat of arms.

There were two exhortations in that choice. Firstly, if you are going to tell your story, then make sure you live a life worth telling stories about. And secondly, if you do something worth telling stories about then make sure you tell your story because it really matters.

From that I started thinking about the future and story of Africa, which today is almost always told from that of a negative or victim perspective, for example with natural disasters, corruption or famine. That story gets told a lot. I really believe that Africa needs to tell its own stories, about its future, about what Africa will be like in 50 or 100 years’ time. What it could be like when artificial intelligence is driving its economy, or what it will be like when it has solved some of the huge disease challenges and exported those solutions and cures all over the world. I wanted to do something that would encourage African writers and authors to tell their stories. It was out of that belief and wish that the Nommo Awards were born to encourage writers of science fiction and African fiction to write more of their own stories about the nation.

Do you have future ambitions for board work that might draw you into more non-executive opportunities?
Further down the line (and this really would have to be further down the line), I would very much like to be the chair of a substantial company. It would be quite a journey and there is a lot of learning to be done to get there, but I am at heart a business executive and that would be a nice point to get to in my career.

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