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How to be a better chairman

22 Jan 2018

Business people discussing in boardroom

Neil Russell is the chair of PJCare, an award-winning business that specialises in care homes for residents with neurological conditions. Last year, Neil took the IoD’s one-day course on the Role of the Chair and here he explains how it resulted in him restructuring the make-up of the boardroom. As Russell says, ‘we can always be better’….

“I spent 12 years with the Foreign Office and I was working in Poland as a press officer for the British Embassy when I got a call from my mum. She said, ‘I’m opening up a care home. would you come back and manage it for me?’

At that stage, she was putting together the business plan and looking for funding.

When she went to the banks they turned her away saying ‘you’re a nurse, you’re a woman…’ Eventually, we found the Unity Trust Bank which funds community projects and they were willing to take a bigger risk. I looked after all the administrative, behind the scenes work, finance, sales and marketing.

That was 18 years ago. Now I spend half my time telling bank managers where to go as opposed to the other way around!

Quality before profit

We built up the business from a 22-bed home to the point where now we’ve got 180 beds. In this industry that represents slow growth but deliberately so. We’ve never taken external funding, so we maintain control because the quality of what we do is more important than making profits.

We provide specialist care for people with neurological conditions. They are generally a lot younger, the average age tends to be late 40s, early 50s. The youngest person in our care with a form of dementia was 18. These residents have their own challenges and we aim to provide the best standard of care. We’ve got three times as many staff as you would get in similar-sized care homes elsewhere.

My team are fantastic, and we get incredible feedback from families and other professionals about the work that we do. You can’t put a value on that. Last year, we were awarded the Investors in People Platinum Standard and received the Amazon Growing Business Award for Family Business of the Year.

My mum is semi-retired but has remained on the board as a Non-Exec. She handed over the reins to me which is why I took the course on the Role of the Chair.

I’m an IoD member and the course was highlighted in one of its emails. The only chairperson we’ve had is my mum, so I thought I should look into it and see how things are done in other companies.

Some aspects of the course confirmed that we’re doing things in the right way and that, in itself, made it worthwhile. But you also get to hear about the challenges that other people on the course are facing with the boards.

Implementing new ideas

It was also very beneficial in terms of taking on new ideas that I’ve managed to implement.

We used to have a board meeting every month. Now we can have one every quarter and, instead, we have a monthly executive management meeting where we can be more open, less formal and decisions we make can be ratified at the board meeting.

We don’t have to go through a formal agenda. We can argue and disagree with each other, hammer out these ideas and making sure they are going to work before looking at them at board level.

That was one of the things I picked up from the course along with making sure I’ve got the right people on the board. I subsequently got rid of two directors and replaced them because they weren’t challenging anything. I want people who will say ‘have you thought about this? ‘this might not work because of x’.

The legal responsibilities

Also, rather than having people read out reports in the meeting we send those reports out two or three days before and then we can discuss it and make recommendations.

It means what would have taken up half an hour in a board meeting might only take up five minutes.

Another area they look at on the course revolves around the legal responsibilities, that you have a legal obligation to make sure they all understand the risks involved and take care of the company’s money.

Taking the course helped me to change our structure and I’ve always said we can find ways to improve what we do. We can always be better.”

Role of the Chair

By attending this course you will gain the knowledge and skills to:

  • Appreciate the board's role, purpose and key tasks
  • Define the role and responsibilities of the chair in successfully leading and chairing a board
  • Compose and develop a more effective board
  • Assess key director relationships
  • Make proper use of both executive and non-executive directors
  • Plan and run effective board meetings
  • Understand the skills and personal qualities most likely to help achieve competence in the role

For more details including how to book a place on the course, visit the page 

Neil Russell, Executive Chairman, PJCare 

Neil Russell is the executive chairman of PJCare, a leading independent provider of specialist neurological care and neuro-rehabilitation with three care centres in Milton Keynes and one in Peterborough. Prior to joining PJCare in 2000, he travelled the world as a diplomat in the British Foreign Office gaining valuable experience as a negotiator and team leader. Neil is also a member of the IoD.

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