Professional Development

The challenges of executive life

Nicola Green, director of corporate affairs at O2, discusses the challenge of having a seat on the executive board for communications professionals

When Nicola Green, corporate affairs director at O2, first took her seat on the executive board of Telefonica UK on 1 June, it marked the end of an intense 18 month journey in which she was challenged on an almost daily basis. It was also six months ahead of a self-imposed two-year deadline, which if it had been missed would have led to her voluntary departure.

‘I said to Mark [Evans, chief executive] that if I didn’t make it, I would leave because there was nothing left for me to achieve here,’ Green admits. ‘I had until the end of this year to prove myself. But I also said that I didn’t want this position because I’m a woman. I want the position because I’m good at my job. I want to have earned it.’

Evans, the former finance director of O2 who was appointed to the top position three years ago, became a hard yet fair taskmaster. ‘I’m not sure other CEOs would have invested the time that Mark invested in me to get me where I needed to get to, and I can’t thank him enough. He has done so much to push and drive me to get here,’ adds Green. ‘He championed me. But he also said to me I kind of feel that if you fail, that is my failure too.’

Evans identified the appropriate courses that Green needed to attend and also hired a coach. ‘The coach taught me how to navigate the boardroom better and politically, how to frame my questioning, how to drive things through,’ she explains. There were practical insights and also skills-based training, such as confidence.

‘It was about giving me the confidence to have a conversation with somebody that was not an easy one, say. I already had that with the CEO but to have that conversation in a wider forum, where a lot of people will say That’s not true… It can be quite aggressive at board level, so it was about building my confidence, my stamina in my approach, learning how to do things the right way to achieve the right outcomes, and about understanding the other players and their motivations.’

From the outset, Evans established a strict framework for Green’s progress, and each month challenged her on any achievements and quizzed her about areas that she still needed to address. Everything was documented. ‘My learning curve over that year and a half was the biggest of my career,’ she adds. ‘What you don’t want to do in the boardroom is to explain the technology, say. I probably knew about that much about everything [she moves her hands close together] but now I know this much [and widens them out].

‘Now I truly know what core fibre is needed for 5G, the connections and why we need to turn all our spectrum on and why we need to think carefully about where we invest in fibre because at the moment we’re paying Open Reach. I kind of knew that beforehand, but I hadn’t really thought about what it meant. But you cannot sit around that board table and not understand what makes a business tick and what is driving it forward. My husband jokes that our level of conversation has gone right up.’

She admits: ‘I’m not sure if, at the beginning, I could truly have described what a corporate affairs director should be doing on a board, and what the role might be. But over the 18 months, I got a really clear idea about the role I should play, the objectives I could achieve and also what success looks like – and doesn’t.’

But it was not just about navigating the UK business. Green had also to convince O2’s Spanish owners at Telefonica that she should be appointed to the board. ‘There were a lot of day trips to Madrid, to interact with them and make sure that the chairman [José María Álvarez-Pallete] understood Mark’s decision,’ says Green. ‘That was one of Mark’s key issues, that the appointment should not be a surprise to anybody. He said When you finally get it, everybody should say it makes sense. If they don’t say that, then it is not helpful to either of us.’

I didn’t want this position because I’m a woman. I want the position because I’m good at my job. I want to have earned it

Each trip led to direct feedback. ‘I’d get off the plane at 9pm, exhausted mentally and physically, and walk to passport control with Mark saying You should have done this, That was really good, that wasn’t good.’ Similar direct feedback followed Green’s first board meeting. ‘It was hard,’ she concedes. ‘He said You did this wrong. You didn’t own the conversation on that, and you should have done. You started it well, but halfway through you let it get away from you… but then you got it.

‘It was about building my confidence, my stamina in my approach, learning how to do things the right way to achieve the right outcomes, and about understanding the other players and their motivations. It was harsh, but it was really good. It helped.’

It is only since joining the board that Green admits she truly understands how it operates. ‘Sometimes I think we’re a little naive in our understanding of other people’s jobs and the skills you need. I think the board is 80 per cent focused on going forward and only 20 per cent on going backwards, so me turning up and saying Hey, look at all this coverage. We’re really great and we’ve changed our reputation score from here to here. They’re almost Whatever! They are more focused on what is going to hit us around the corner.

‘But it is then about marrying what hits us around the corner with the financial impact on our business. I’m writing business cases around issues, so it’s about understanding the financials and then modelling around what we need to do. In the past, I would probably have said These are the issues and this is how we mitigate.’

Evans was clear that he wanted Green to bring ‘the outside in’ to the boardroom. It was vital that she kept the customer front of mind, advocating for them at all times, but also that she laid out how different stakeholders, such as the media and politicians, might react to decisions being made.

My voting right gives me more opportunity to guide strategy earlier on than at the end

‘I think he was trying to get me to do that before, but I didn’t really have any power,’ says Green. ‘But Mark points out that I can do it in a credible way because I now have the same voting rights as everybody else. I feel more collective responsibility. I can’t just say Oh, that’s networks or That’s marketing. It’s easier for me to challenge the business to drive the right outcome than it was before. Whereas before I might say to marketing Why isn’t this launch very good? and they’d say It’s nice you think that Nicola, but this is what we’re doing, now they can’t get away with it.

‘Marketing [which is also on the board] has to answer to me, and if I bring up an issue in the boardroom it gets minuted, which means there’s a motion and we have to show that action is taken on the back of that. That voting right gives me more opportunity to guide the strategy earlier on than at the end.’

Such rights bring responsibility, and Green concedes that much of her time now is taken up reading board papers, developing a real understanding of the issues to inform her questioning and ensure that the right decisions are being made.

‘I am being put on the spot a lot, getting asked What’s your view? If a comms person were asked Would you invest in this or this?, they’d say All of it because that makes their life easier. But when you’re stuck around the table and you know there is this amount of money and have to select one of four options that you think is right for the business, that is a fundamentally different question. It has made me think differently about comms, with the way I approach things and my understanding of how organisations work.’

On two occasions since her appointment, Green’s interventions at the board meetings have impacted the ultimate decision. ‘Collectively, I want us to be clear that we have done everything we can before we get that outcome. I said If there’s nothing else we can do, that’s fine but just let us go round it again to make sure. When I asked Mark if I was doing the right thing, he said Those two challenges you made have fundamentally changed our business. That’s the power you bring, and I’m pleased I’ve got you in this position. Can you imagine if I didn’t challenge? What would be the point of all this? Mark could just brief me on what was going on,’ adds Green.

‘I have found it massively stretching, and at times thought Be careful what you wish for but I am now getting into my stride!’