Britain’s tech turn

UK companies filling board seats make a big push for digitally savvy directors.

Although it is supposed to be leaving the European Union soon, Britain is vying to be part of another group: the tech club.

In a noticeable shift, the UK's largest listed companies favored adding the digitally savvy to their boards in 2015, new Korn Ferry research shows. Board makeup otherwise was a little less female than in recent years, favored former CEOs and, as expected, was more British.

Korn Ferry for years has tracked and surveyed the new non-executive directors (NEDs) of Britain’s top 350 companies listed on the Financial Times Stock Exchange (the FTSE350), and the more than 200 new members of the Class of 2015 differentiated themselves from their predecessors most notably with new expertise in technology. Although just nine new NEDs in 2007 had tech backgrounds, 39 do so in the latest study.

“As they seek to keep pace with the dramatic, continuing effects of digitization on their businesses from top to bottom, UK companies have been eager, and they have been casting their nets far and wide, to attract to their boards the tech talent that economic realities demand,” said Richard Emerton, the firm’s Managing Partner for Board and CEO services, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “In 2015, our research indicates they added this talent robustly.”

Companies may have made a minor trade-off to do so. They added 75 female NEDs in 2015, fewer than the 90 appointed in 2014; it’s still higher than the average number of female NEDs appointed in seven recent years, which stands at 69. Since the 2011 issue of the landmark Women on Boards study, also known as the Davies Report, the UK’s top companies have been under heightened public pressure to improve their gender diversity. They have made strides in doing so, and the study also has increased awareness of other ways that boards can diversify their membership, including with tech talent and by selecting leaders with international perspectives.

Although UK firms are acutely aware of their boards’ need for a global outlook, the newest NEDs Class is heavily British and European; many of them do have experience around the planet, however. It may be that the cost of bringing in directors for meetings has kept down the addition of NEDs from more distant places in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the firm has found.

The majority of new NEDs have been CEOs or members of the C-suite, often with backgrounds in general management and finance.

“Our study finds that the role of the non-executive director has grown in importance, as have the demands on the time, skills, experience, and capacities of these organizational leaders,” Emerton said. “This is an elite group, with great and growing responsibility.”

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