The world of business is marked by plenty of individuals with big personalities – Sir Alan Sugar, Michael O’Leary or Richard Branson, to name a few.
But little has been written about the collective personalities of the board members steering companies and how they can bring about the success – or failure – of a business.
Now a University of Wolverhampton student, who also sits on the board of several big firms, is inviting West Midland businesses of all types and sizes to take part in a board personality test to help him with his research into the subject.
Alan Walker, who has 40 years of experience in the pharmaceutical sector, is about to embark on a PhD looking at how the jigsaw of personalities that make up a board affects the direction of the business.
Mr Walker is looking for local businesses who would be willing to give up an hour in exchange for a free analysis of their collective personality.
He believes that, although there has been research on board composition in terms of background of directors, not much has been done in the field of analysing personality types on boards.
He said: “What I’m trying to do is to offer companies an appraisal of the board’s composite personality profile.
“Some people measure things like age of directors, sex, race, education – that sort of thing – but nobody has really measured the personality of the directors.”
Mr Walker, trained by the British Psychological Society, will offer free anonymous individual psychometric tests to each board member which will then be assembled into a group board profile.
He assured companies that individual board members would not have their personality profile shared publicly but instead information would be fed into a composite profile representing the whole board.
“It’s a bit of an MOT and a healthcheck on how it’s working and what the board personality profile looks like, highlighting where the gaps might be,” he said. “I will be able to see if a particular personality profile isn’t very strong on those boards and to see what it’s lacking. For a new director, I would be looking for somebody who had this type of personality profile to make the board stronger.”
Mr Walker has a “jigsaw model” for his PhD, which will be carried out over the next year. He said: “The board is a team of different people. I call it the jigsaw theory – we have got different parts of the jigsaw. The board should have lot of different abilities to manage as a team and do the work of a board and one person alone won’t have all those abilities.
“It’s a bit like a football team – one person is good at one particular aspect and unless they work as a team, the board won’t be at its best – you have to make sure you have a goalie and a striker, for example. In the past, people have said they will widen the board by bringing in different backgrounds but I’m saying the real diversity is your personality and that people are different because of their personality.”
He is hoping his research will throw light on what kinds of personalities would make up a “fantasy board”.
“That’s the question I’m asking. I’m looking at the personalities, the processes and outcomes and what personalities produce the best processes and the best outcomes. That will be the big question,” he said.
He pointed to how personalities and how the board interacts can affect the performance of a company, using disgraced banker Fred Goodwin at Royal Bank of Scotland as an example.
Mr Walker said much of RBS’s problems were likely to have stemmed from a lack of critical debate on the board.
“If a board has a lot of rubber-stamping, which RBS seems to have had, that’s when you get Fred Goodwin running away with the silver. What your board should do is challenge the chief executive and ask ‘are you doing the right thing?’ Not all boards do that and it’s clear RBS didn’t do it.”
Mr Walker has held senior positions on the boards of international listed companies, including a presidential role with a US-based global pharmaceutical business. He is chairman of hi-tech firm BioFilm and chief executive of pharmaceutical business EctoPharma, as well as a chartered director.