Q&A with Jen Sundberg from Board Intelligence

We had the pleasure of chatting with Jen Sundberg, Founder and Co-Chief Executive of Board Intelligence, a business transforming the effectiveness of boards by improving the quality of their briefing papers.

In this interview, Jen tells us about her entrepreneurial journey and how technology can help Company Secretaries work smarter.

About Jen. Jen is the Founder and Co-CEO of Board Intelligence. She was named The Times Young Business Woman of the Year and alongside her work with company boards, she plays an active role shaping governance policy in the UK and in Europe. She holds an MA from Cambridge University and The Judge Business School.

Tell us about your company – how did you get the idea for Board Intelligence? 

The idea came from an experience back in 2008 when I was running a strategy consultancy and a client invited me to join one of their board meetings.

The client was a highly successful FTSE 250 but with a number of big strategic challenges on the horizon. I knew they had a high calibre board, so it looked set to be a great meeting. But to my surprise, in 4 hours they never got around to talking about any of the things that really mattered. Instead they spent the meeting pouring over board papers filled with backward looking financial and operational data.  

This was also the time of the global financial crisis and there was a lot of scrutiny on the people appointed to the boards of our largest companies.  The conclusion in the media was that boards were failing because they’d appointed the wrong people.  But I had seen first-hand how a board of talented and carefully selected individuals could struggle to add much value, if they didn’t have the information to enable the conversations that mattered.

Today, Board Intelligence provides over 10,000 subscribers with access to a platform that helps management teams to prepare effective board papers and in turn stimulates the right conversations at the right time, therefore helping boards to take better decisions.   

What was your smartest move in achieving success at Board Intelligence? 

Persuading Pippa Begg, my business partner, to abandon her successful City career, take a pay cut and join me in giving the idea for Board Intelligence a shot.  She is a firebrand – hugely energetic and intelligent.  And as well as adding value on an objective level, it’s a lot more fun to build a business with someone else.

I’ve heard that falling out with a business partner is one of the main causes of failure for a new venture.  Pippa and I bring different skills to the table, but we share a vision and have the same values, so we can always work things out. And our friendship has grown in step with the growth of the business.

Did you always want to run your own business? 

No. I assumed that budding entrepreneurs were the brilliant maverick types who at school would have railed against the rules rather than spent their holidays polishing their course-work and attending Ancient Greek summer schools.  I joined a large strategy house when I graduated and I expected I’d be happy there. It came as a surprise to discover that I hated it quite so much. I found the lack of intellectual freedom stifling at the bottom of a large food chain. Within 9 months I’d handed in my notice to give my own thing a go.  

What would you say to someone who was about to start their own business? 

Persevere, expect bends in the road and don’t give up!  It took me and Pippa two years to secure our first major account for Board Intelligence.  After about 9 months everyone told me we should call it a day and admit defeat.  But we kept at it, refining and responding to what we learnt along the way and eventually we were vindicated.  The non-execs from our first major client introduced us to our second, third and fourth accounts and the rest is history.  But it would have been easy to have felt defeated early on. 

Of course there is a fine line between dogged determination and blind delusion.  I think the difference may lie in whether you take on board the lessons from each knock back. But that’s not the same as giving up. And I’ve often drawn comfort from the saying that “if it feels easy, you are probably peddling downhill”.  So remember, the harder it feels, the more progress you are making!

How is the role of Company Secretaries evolving and how can technology help them work smarter?  

With ever greater scrutiny on boards, the role of the Company Secretary has been underscored and they are increasingly seen as a strategic partner to the board.

To begin with technology companies like us were being called on to help give Company Secretaries time back, freeing them up for higher level board engagement. They would use our Platform to automate processes like board pack collation and distribution, saving a lot of time and hassle.

But expectations have evolved and increasingly Company Secretaries are looking for more than just efficiencies from their technology providers.  They are demanding tools that help them to add value to the quality of board meetings.  Our Platform includes tools to help board report writers craft high impact papers and these days it’s the Company Secretaries who are championing the adoption of these tools. 

What do you think is the main barrier for introducing new technology to Company Secretaries who want to improve the quality of their board papers? 

We researched exactly this at last year’s annual gathering of Company Secretaries hosted by ICSA: The Governance Institute. Over 70% could see a glaring problem with either the scope or quality of their board papers but fewer than half felt that they had a clear mandate to effect the change that they thought was needed.

We have been working with ICSA ever since to create a set of tools for their members that help them to trigger a constructive conversation with their board and exec teams and to secure that mandate for change. These tools are free-to-air and you can try them out here: www.assessyourboardpack.com and www.boardreportingcalculator.com.