Anthony Hilton: Chairmanship is about leadership

I used to think that invisibility cloaks only existed in the mind of JK Rowling and the world of Harry Potter, but quite obviously I was wrong.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Hands up anyone who has ever seen the chairman of BP (and I don't mean Peter Sutherland, because he has retired) and take a gold star if you can remember either his name or what he looks like. I was at a big City party last week where his name was on the guest list, but no one in the room knew whether he was there or not.

Interesting isn't it that this should be so when BP is facing its biggest public relations crisis in decades and is being positioned by US government as something even more hateful than Goldman Sachs. That's when you need someone who can smooze at the very top level. Whatever happened to the idea that a chairman's job was to be the public ambassador of the firm and support the chief executive in his hour of need?

Or take Sir Martin Broughton. Everyone knows he is chairman of Liverpool Football Club, parachuted in to try to find a buyer willing to pay a price for the club so eye-wateringly over the top that even Tom Hicks, the American private equity tycoon, will accept it.

But how many of you know who the chairman of British Airways is? No, it is not Lord King - he died years ago - and it is not Willie Walsh. He is chief executive.

In fact, it is Martin Broughton. But despite the fact that BA is battling its way through a hugely damaging series of strikes and having to fight a PR war, the outcome of which will probably determine who wins the industrial dispute, the only person you see fronting the battle is Walsh and he looks a bit lonely.

And so to Marks & Spencer, where chairman Sir Stuart Rose will shortly head for the exit. One would have thought there would be a bus-load of people after Rose's job, but that appears not to be the case.

There is something going on here. You get the feeling that all the corporate governance stuff is delivering us chairmen who are so focused on getting the right gender balance on the board, the right challenge to the chief executive and ticking all the other boxes that they have forgotten the job is actually about leadership.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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