Episode 392 – Board Talk with Kathryn Bishop & Gillian Camm

Kathryn Bishop & Gillian CammKathryn Bishop, CBE and Gillian Camm are seasoned members of both private and public sector boards. And they’ve learned that effective governance comes down not to rigid structure and process but to one of the most ancient human skills of all: conversation. Conversations on the right topics, with the right people, in the right way. 
So it made sense of course to structure the book around the various types of conversation essential for strong boards; but what they hadn’t expected was that their collaborative writing process would itself emobody the honest, energised, respectful conversational style they were advocating in the book. 
Essential listening if you’re a board member, a writer, or simply a human being who needs to talk to other human beings to Get Things Done. 

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Kathryn’s website: https://kathryn-bishop.com/

Kathryn on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathryn-bishop-cbe-1471184/

Gillian on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gillian-camm-0869b21a/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

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Write with me! https://alisonjones.com/writing/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Kathryn Bishop and Gillian Camm, each of whom have spent decades in boardrooms in private sector companies, public bodies, charities, and schools, working with boards as Chair, Senior Independent Director, Non-executive or Executive Member. Their focus on making boards more effective blends this real life, practical experience with their research and teaching, and together, they are the authors of Board Talk: 18 crucial conversations that count inside and outside the boardroom.

So first of all, welcome to you both. It’s lovely to have you both here,

Gillian Camm: Well, thank you for having us.

Alison Jones: Separately. Let’s talk about the genesis of that book. How did that start? What was the twinkle in the eye?

Kathryn Bishop: Well, I have a story to tell you about that. So, Gillian and I were sitting around having coffee and talking about boards that we had worked with, as you do. Good, bad and indifferent. And Gillian said to me, you know, it reminds me of biology at school and I was a little… I have to admit, I was…

Alison Jones: I’m not seeing where you’re going with this.

Kathryn Bishop: So she said, well you remember when you’re in the biology lab and they give you a rat to dissect and you open up the rat and it’s got all the structures and connective tissues and organs and ligaments. But here’s the thing, the rat is dead. And we’ve both worked on boards where there was plenty of structure and process in place, where they had good schedules and reporting packs, but basically the rat was dead. There was not much real governance happening.

And so when she told me this story, I thought it was a fabulous image. And I said to her, you should write a book. And then a second later I said, no, no, I’d like to write a book with you. And so, as she will tell you, we spent the ensuing year kicking about ideas and research and our own experience and the experience of people we interviewed to find out what it is that makes some boards alive and some boards dead.

Gillian Camm: And I’ve spent a lot of time doing governance reviews and whenever I see a governance failure in the newspaper, I’ve got my little checklist of 10 or so things and invariably they all come up and we would meet for coffee and I’d say to Kathryn, you know, it’s mad, there’s a governance failure and everybody rushes around and does a big analysis and it’s one of these 10 things.

And we write a bit more code you know, the governance codes and we report differently, but they still keep happening. And one of the earliest ones I could find was the Rolls Royce failure in 1970 -71, and you know, that was written up in 1978 and the 10 factors there apply to Carillion and apply to the Countess of Chester, and why aren’t we learning these lessons?

And my background is psychology, and I’ve always been intrigued as to why people behave differently in groups than they do on their own. And I thought, actually, you know, what’s going on sits beneath the code. It sits beneath all of these structural things, and it’s about how people talk to each other, how people engage with each other, what they actually say, but probably more importantly, what they don’t say.

Alison Jones: This is the stuff that’s not legislated for, there are no procedures and processes…

Gillian Camm: No, and it’s difficult to understand how you write a code of governance around behavior and around groupthink and things like that. But that’s, as we sort of delved into that, that was what was coming out for us, is it’s this behavioral stuff that’s actually drives a good board or not a good board and why people say things and why people don’t.

I think the other thing that happens is, you know, when there is a governance failure, all the staff say we knew this was going to happen.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Gillian Camm: And it’s like an unspoken secret. It’s in plain sight. And there’s a whistleblower somewhere who says, I’ve been saying this for five years. Why isn’t that being tapped into?

Alison Jones: So I guess that leads me to another question, which is, what’s your ambition for the book?

Kathryn Bishop: I think we want to try to reach two kinds of readers. Readers who are already on a board of whatever kind, public sector, private sector, in the hope that these 18 conversations might make them think about the topics they talk about and how they talk about them. But we also really, really want to reach those people who are not on a board, who maybe would like to be, but who think, oh, that sounds very complicated, I’m not sure that’s for me.

Because the point we’re trying to make is that actually it really is about conversation, it’s about the kinds of discussions we have, and everybody knows how to talk and if we engage in conscious conversation. You are doing the work of governance. So it’s that encouragement to people because boards need really good people to help, to join.

Alison Jones: And what’s really interesting about your book as well is you take that key idea that actually what we’re talking about here is conversation and you use that as the structural principle for the book. So just tell me a little bit about how that came about.

Gillian Camm: Well, when we got together for these infamous coffee and breakfast sessions, we started saying, so what are all the, you know, we realized we wanted to put it around conversation, but we sort of brainstormed all of the different kinds of conversations that you’d be having and what might come up at them and what might be running through your mind when those conversations were happening. So at the back of each chapter, there’s a checklist of questions and things to ask yourself. And it’s almost a bit, you know, how can you tell if your rat’s starting to die? And you just sort of run that over the rat and go, well, if you can’t ask these questions, there’s something wrong.

The other part of the book is on what happens to people in groups, so that you can look around the table and go, actually is this what’s happening here? Why are we not saying anything? And again, there are things to alert you to the fact that actually all is not well in this boardroom and I need to take action and to feel reassured that it’s not just you.

Alison Jones: Yes. And we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve all sat at those meetings and gone, am I the only one? And the sort of pressure not to speak, especially as a junior member, is extraordinary.

Kathryn Bishop: And sometimes it’s about what you talk about. Are you talking about the right topics? Are you talking about the staff view? Sometimes it’s about, are you talking with the right people? Are you talking enough with stakeholders? Are you really listening to what they’re saying? Are you talking about ethics or risk or whatever it may be? And sometimes it’s how are you talking?

So there’s an introductory chapter about key conversational techniques and the approach to take, and then throughout every one of the conversations there’s something about how to engage on this subject, how to connect, how to have conversations that build working relationships and that generate new ideas.

Gillian Camm: I think the other key role is the Chair in all of this and there’s a whole chapter on the Chair and talking about the role of the Chair and and how the Chair might think about structuring the agenda because Kathryn and I found that an awful lot of board members were coming to us and saying we’re just not talking about the right things. You know, we have a meeting and we’re talking about all the wrong things.

So we had this kind of concept of the big strategic aeroplanes. You know, boards would probably have three big strategic issues and at any time there’ll be one aeroplane in the air, there’ll be one taxiing down the runway and there’ll be one ready to land.

And it’s just how are you structuring your agendas? How are you structuring those conversations? What happens before a board meeting? What happens after a board meeting? And we found that quite a useful concept as well.

Alison Jones: It’s a metaphorical riot. I’m loving the rats and the airplanes.

Gillian Camm: Kathryn struggled because I think in pictures all the time and yes…

Alison Jones: You don’t want to be mixing those two metaphors either. That could get really messy.

Tell me a little bit about when you said, actually, no, I want to write it with you.

Gillian, did you say Marvellous, let’s get started? Or did you have any sort of qualms or, you know, just tell us the story about how you wrote together?

Gillian Camm: Well, Kathryn said, I’d like to write it with you. And I thought, why would she want to do that? She’s written a book already. You know, so I had a large dose of imposter syndrome, but then we just started talking and it was quite clear that there were lots of ideas and I mean, it felt it was just a lot of fun writing it and a lot of fun talking about it.

 And I found things that Kathryn said, yes, that’s just how I feel and I think she felt the reverse. And so there was, you know, there was a lot of recognition that actually, if we both feel like that, and we’ve been on a number of boards, other people will feel like that too. So it was just real excitement actually.

Alison Jones: And Kathryn, you’ve done it both ways. You’ve written alone and now you’ve written in partnership. Tell us, how was that?

Kathryn Bishop: Well, I was very keen to write with somebody else because I’m an extrovert and I think best when my mouth is moving. So writing a book on your own, which I did for my first book was enjoyable, but it was lonely. So the experience of writing with someone else and being able to, you know, we would meet for breakfast and we would kick around ideas and roar with laughter often and play with metaphors and structure.

And then we would go away and write bits, it was enormously enjoyable.

Gillian Camm: I think because we both realised that we valued each other, we could be quite tough with each other in terms of giving feedback and, you know, I know you just sent me that chapter, but honestly, what were you thinking? And we could give each other quite rigorous feedback as well and neither of us took offence.

Kathryn Bishop: No, absolutely. Yes. There was one point where Gillian had come up with a model for thinking about something and I basically liked the model that she had before. So I was just able to say that. And equally, there was one occasion where she said to me, you know, this example, Kathryn, I don’t think it really works. It’s not going to resonate with the reader. So we took it out.

So it was the kind, frankly, we had the kind of conversation that board members need to have. We weren’t consciously mirroring or modeling it, but we had a level of respect and connection for each other that allowed us to speak clearly and honestly.

And that’s what you want around a boardroom table.

Alison Jones: It’s interesting, three levels though, what you’re talking about, the way that you structure the book and the way that you write it together, all sort of in harmony.

Did you find that that, were you able to be, okay, this is a very leading question, because it’s what I noticed. Did you find you were able to be bolder around that conversational structure, and just writing in a way that frankly, I don’t think any book about governance has ever been written before, because there were two of you, and you were able to validate each other.

Gillian Camm: I think that’s right. And…

Kathryn Bishop: I do too.

Gillian Camm: …I think that we were able to develop the models that we had. So we had some models and ideas and things like that and we returned to them time and time and time again. And I think what had become apparent to both of us was that looking back at the history of boards, boards of directors used to be responsible for scrutiny, catching people out and things like that.

And we both had an underlying thesis that actually boards need to, A, act as a team, which is kind of a new-ish concept really. You know, previously it was boards of directors who were individual experts who rocked up on the third Tuesday and spouted erudite stuff, but we had a thesis that they had to be a team and it’s not just about marking homework it’s about driving performance.

And so how did you get those boards of directors to work as a team when they meet each other so infrequently? And how do you get them to enhance and drive performance, just not mark people’s homework? And we pushed each other and pushed each other about what that would actually look like and what we’d seen was good and what we’d seen was not so good.

And, and there was a lot of, I described it as a fish stew, we had all these sort of fish heads and bits and pieces and we sort of boiled them away and, hopefully something quite good came out of it. But there was quite a few fish head moments along the way.

Kathryn Bishop: And the conversation structure that you mention, Alison, we have both read some very good books about boards, but they mostly are about structure and process and topics and content. And they might touch on conversations a little bit, but we wanted to put that front and center to compliment some of those other very good books, but also to get at the heart of what we think is new and necessary in boardrooms in the 21st century.

Alison Jones: It allows you to be more accessible as well, doesn’t it? I mean, it is written in a more conversational style because it has to be because it’s about conversation. It’s interesting.

Kathryn Bishop: Well, because we wanted to encourage those people who might think a boardroom is not for me. We wanted the message as, yes, yes, absolutely it is, and the board needs you.

Gillian Camm: I think the other thing that was important was that it is underpinned by research, and it is underpinned by some quite important psychological and business concepts. And it goes right back to the kind of early formations, the legal formations of boards, as well as some quite important psychological concepts.

Alison Jones: As you would expect from your backgrounds, of course, you’ve got that mix of the research and the professional experience.

Gillian, this is your first book, isn’t it?

Gillian Camm: It is, yes, yes.

Alison Jones: How was it for you?

Gillian Camm: I really enjoyed it. The point at which we had to take 20, 000 words out wasn’t great and I felt every one of those words.

Alison Jones: a low moment.

Gillian Camm: I felt every one of those words disappearing but it was just immensely enjoyable, actually and there were certain things like looking at typeface and margins and things like that didn’t necessarily float my boat, but just coming up with the ideas and the whole kind of conceptual underpinning and, you know, we used to meet, well, at one point we were meeting once a week and they were really energising sessions that kind of set you up for the rest of the week and my family did have a theory that actually all we were doing was meeting up for coffee and not writing a book at all.

Alison Jones: There does seem to be a lot of coffee that has gone into the making of this book. I am noticing that as a theme. Was there anything that you found that was surprising or particularly challenging about the process that perhaps you hadn’t expected?

Gillian Camm: I think getting your thoughts straight, having to think really, really deeply about things and having to take time out to just, you know, actually what are we really trying to say here? And what’s our underlying thesis and what’s our underlying kind of conceptual model that we’re working with here.

And I found intellectually, that was very, very challenging, but hugely enjoyable.

Alison Jones: It is interesting, isn’t it? Because so much of the time we’re in conversation and you sometimes don’t finish your sentences and you kind of know what you mean and you move on and the rigor of writing and having to finish your sentences and having to make them fit with the ones before and lead on to the ones after, there’s something annoying but pleasing about that.

Gillian Camm: Yes. Yes. You definitely went through a pain threshold on it.

Alison Jones: So I always ask my guests for their best tip for authors and I’m going to ask you sort of separately because although you’ve worked together beautifully, I have to say it’s been not a sort of cross word or a missed deadline or anything, it’s been amazing, I’m really interested in your different takes on it.

So if I start with you, Kathryn, if somebody’s considering starting this for the first time, you’re a veteran now, what would you say to them?

Kathryn Bishop: So I think if you’d asked me that before my first book, I would have said, get the structure clear in your mind. Think about where you’re going to start, what the middle is going to look like, and what the end is going to look like. And that’s true, structure helps, having got a Table of Contents in your head will help you enormously, but actually the tip that I would pass on is just write, particularly when you don’t know what you think.

I found that surprisingly helpful, just putting the pen on the paper and just starting to write. What is it I’m trying to say here? Which readers am I trying to reach? What’s the point I’m trying to get across? That was enormously helpful.

I subsequently threw that writing away because I had worked out what it was we needed to say in the book.

So just write. Put the nib of the pen on the paper.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And what about you, Gillian?

Gillian Camm: Well, I think this may sound a bit superficial, but for me it was quite important, when you’ve got a day job that requires dealing with sort of 60 emails or you know, pile of other very different stuff and you work in a very different way, I tried to do that on my normal desk, but actually what I needed to do was two things.

One was. approach it as a different sort of job. So actually my husband put a desk out in the garden shed and I had the doors open because a lot of the time it was in the summer and it’s surrounded by the trees and it felt like an occasion. So it felt like a very different sort of activity and I found that really helpful.

I didn’t find it helpful trying to write with my laptop, with emails pinging through and all my day to day stuff. And so, I guess my tip would be for a first time writer, make it an occasion, make it different, make it enticing. And I really enjoyed going down with a cup of coffee, sitting in the shed, looking at the garden and it felt like a totally different activity and that helped hugely.

Alison Jones: It always puts you in a different mental space, doesn’t it?

Gillian Camm: Yes.

Alison Jones: That’s very Roald Dahl, of course. He famously had a shed

Gillian Camm: Oh, I’m in good company

Alison Jones: You’re in very good company, yes.

And it’s interesting, so there was a dance between you, I suppose, of when you come together to discuss… over your coffee and your croissants. This is a book brought to you by Costa.

And then you go separately to do your work. Just complete that picture for us. How did you then bring it back together and mark each other’s homework?

Kathryn Bishop: So we would bounce bits of text between each other on email. We would have short regular Zoom calls, sometimes even daily. We’re both early risers, so we would have 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning. That thing you’ve just sent me, really like the middle paragraph. Can we make that twice as long? Think that’s going to work very well. Not too sure about the third part. You know, that kind of thing.

And that worked very well. Interestingly, right at the beginning, I read quite a lot of books about how to write a book with someone else. And I looked at all the lessons, you know, have a contracting phase, describe what each of you are good at, make sure your technology is interlinked.

We kind of tried that for about three minutes and then we didn’t do any of that. We just started.

Alison Jones: It’s the human element, isn’t it? That’s the defining thing here. You can get all the, and it’s like your rat, you can have a perfectly, beautifully hooked up dead rat.

Kathryn Bishop: Exactly.

Alison Jones: That’s absolutely brilliant. I’m going to ask you both for a recommendation as well. So obviously Board Talk, you’re not allowed to recommend that, but what book do you think is perhaps undervalued, or you’ hink that anybody listening should have a read of if they haven’t already, which has helped you?

Kathryn Bishop: Gillian, you go

Gillian Camm: I’m going to try and sneak two past you. I’ve listened to the other ones, I know some people have managed…

Alison Jones: that’s never been done before on this podcast!

Gillian Camm: I did notice it had, so…. the book I’d recommend, is a book called Stop the Rot by Bob Garratt. What I think is really important about this book is he’s trying to bring together a series of values, personal values, corporate governance values, and things like that. But he’s looking at regulation, the ownership of organizations, legislation, and the Directors themselves, and then the kind of public oversights in the middle of that.

And I think it’s quite an important book and it comes out of his first book, which was The Fish Rots From the Head. And that book helped me understand conceptually what the options were around boards and things like that. And I use it in my governance work, because quite often people have a different conception about what a board is and what an independent director is.

But this second book, looks at, much broader about society as a whole. And the whole issue around the board’s responsibility to wider society and I think there’s some real issues about regulators and he writes a lot about regulators in that book and I think what we’re seeing at the moment is, in all sorts of places, a regulatory failure which is impacting on boards and I think for me is another important area that’s going to get increasingly important.

Alison Jones: Yes, and…

…picking up on all your brilliant analysis of the sort of the content of the book and why it’s important. And I’m just going to, from a publisher’s perspective, it’s a really nice example of picking up on the success of a book The Fish Rots From the Head is one of those classic books. Everybody talks about it. One of the reasons is the dead animal metaphor, actually. So it’s why metaphors work so well.

But then he builds on that with Stop the Rot and picks up on the idea. And so it’s a great sort of, for a business book writing perspective, it’s got real value as well as from anybody who wants to look at regulation and how it’s going wrong or not.

So thank you, great recommendation. What about you, Kathryn?

Kathryn Bishop: I’m going to take a different approach and the book I’m going to recommend is a book about leadership because actually board roles… They are about leadership. They’re about organizational leadership as well as oversight and scrutiny. So the book I’m going to recommend is the third edition of a book, which is now called Leadership: No More Heroes by David Pendleton, Adrian Furnham and John Cowell.

And the proposition here is that a leadership team made up of diverse experiences and backgrounds is going to be stronger in facing complicated and complex 21st century problems than any one individual, no matter how clever could possibly be.

So I kind of like that, you know, no more heroes. We need diverse leadership teams. We need diverse boards. It’s a good book. I recommend it.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Did you, actually, side question, sorry, but did you find yourself reading more as well as you wrote, or reading differently as you wrote?

Kathryn Bishop: Yes, yes, definitely.

Gillian Camm: I read loads more which was interesting but yes.

Kathryn Bishop: Some of them we went, I think we can probably do better than this.

Alison Jones: But it’s interesting isn’t it, you start, you read more because you’re researching, but you also read with a much more writerly eye, don’t you? You read differently, which I think is one of the great reasons for writing a book.

Love it. Thank you both so much.

And if people want to find out more about the work that you do generally, but also of course Board Talk, if I come to you first Gillian, where should they go?

Gillian Camm: I think go to LinkedIn. I’ve got a website under construction, but LinkedIn would be the first place to go.

Alison Jones: Brilliant.

And what about you, Kathryn?

Kathryn Bishop: I’m on LinkedIn too, but I also have a website at kathryn-bishop.com and this book and indeed my first book are both on it.

Alison Jones: You can give a quick shout out for your first book as well, which is superb.

Kathryn Bishop: Oh, thank you very much.

My first book is about women’s working lives and how to navigate them. A topic I’ve been absolutely fascinated by, both as a woman with navigational needs, and also through the work I’ve been doing at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford with women from all over the world.

It’s called Make Your Own Map: Career success strategy for women, whatever you conceive success to be. It was published in February 2021 by Kogan Page.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. So you can see both books there and the other stuff that Kathryn does. And thank you both so much for your time today.

And on a personal note, let me just say it’s been absolutely joyful working with you as authors as well. So thank you for that. And thank you for producing such an excellent book.

Gillian Camm: Well, thank you for being such a supportive publisher. I’ve not got a lot to choose from, you know, not a lot of experience, but this has been really supportive. It’s been great.

Alison Jones: Thank you.

Kathryn Bishop: A genuine publishing partnership. Thank you, Alison.

Alison Jones: Thank you both.

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