Building Successful Businesses podcast: Martyn Phillips MBE, EP3

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Welcome back to Series 3 of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses. In the third part of our series chatting to Martyn Phillips MBE, we ask him about what he thinks makes for a great private equity chair, and what that transition to chair feels like for ex-CEOs.

Listen to Episode 1.3: 

Available on Apple Podcasts:


Fiona: Following his role as CEO of Wales Rugby, Martyn Phillips moved into non-exec and chair roles at a number of companies, including KB Associates, and Bionic in the ECI family. In this episode of “Building Successful Businesses,” I discuss with Martyn what he thinks makes for a great private equity chair, and what that transition to chair feels like for ex-CEOs.

Martyn: It’s not been as big a leap as I might have thought. And the reason I think that is because, as a CEO, you’re obviously chairing meetings all day, every day – whether it be your exec board, or various sub-boards, or important meetings with stakeholders. I think the skillset is broadly similar. I have not found that as big a challenge. The two things for me would be: one is really remembering that you’re not the CEO. So, being very conscious of that in the early days, which again, I’ve found that okay because I think I’ve always thought about leadership and people and culture. I’ve found that transition okay. And I think it’s an ego thing. If you have a big ego, and you like to be front and centre, and driving and forceful, and be that person, which are a lot of the hallmarks of a CEO, then I would have thought it was quite tough then to be a chairperson where you’ve got to be more in the shadows, give the wins away, get your satisfaction from seeing other people be successful.

I think the reason I found it okay is I had to force myself as the CEO to be the front person. I didn’t like working a room – if you want to call it that. Being in a dinner, and you’re the guy that’s got to talk, and you’re on the top table was something I had to work at as a CEO. I actually enjoy the chair role more, because I’m trying to find a way to help largely an exec team and a chief exec really find themselves. I see that as a puzzle to be solved by the chair, really.

Fiona: And when you mentioned earlier, that when you were an HR director there was that frustration of being one step removed, does that not exist anymore as chair because you’re at a different stage of your career? Or is it because actually you could still have quite a lot of influence, so you don’t feel as far removed as you might have done off the board table?

Martyn: First of all, I think that’s a great question. I’ve never thought about it that way. I think it is a ‘stage in life’ thing. Fifteen years ago, you’re trying to prove to yourself that you can cut it. I think you’re climbing that ladder, you want to be better, get on, and achieve. I don’t necessarily feel that anymore. I’m not trying to prove anything to myself, or anybody. The bit I really enjoy now is to see a CEO really perform, and to know that there’s little bits, not a lot, maybe 5% I brought to the party that has helped them to achieve more than they could have done without me. But I don’t need, nor want actually, any of the credit that goes with that. I’ve found myself in that sense. And I think your point about influence is right, because even if it’s in a very passive way, you can have a lot of influence in terms of what gets talked about at the board, how you summarize what gets agreed to do next. I quite enjoy that third-party influence in that sense.

Fiona: And you mentioned that ego point, and maybe what might make not such a good chair. But what would be your perspective on what makes a really good or great private equity chair?

Martyn: I’ll answer the question, but it almost applies to everything for me. Something I heard years and years ago, that when you’re growing up and people, your mum or dad says to you, “treat others as you would want to be treated”. It was my exec coach, actually, who said to me, “nothing could be further from the truth because you’re just going to impose your values and what you value on others”. His whole thing was ‘treat others as they want to be treated’. As you say, I’m chairing two or three companies. The way I chair the companies, the way I try to lead the chief exec, the way I interact with the exec board of those businesses is completely and utterly different. It’s different because I think long and hard about – “what does this team need at this point?” They’re clearly going to be pretty different but then I don’t think, ‘right, that’s how I’m now going to lead this board?’ I’m always thinking about what worked there, what do they need more or less of, asking them when we’re having good board meetings, what’s going on, what are we doing that isn’t working for you, and they’re quite happy to tell you.
I think it’s about being very nuanced, very deliberate, and very conscious leadership is how I’d describe it. There literally is no ‘one-size-fits-all’.

Fiona: Yes, it’s quite a difficult skill, that attunement with who is on the other side of the table, who you’re helping. Because I think naturally, our instinct is almost just to treat other people like we’d want to be treated, and then it’s a blanket rule for everyone; we’ve all got quite different personalities. Was that something that you learned? You mentioned you had an exec chair there from not having been as attuned with other people? Or is that something that came quite naturally to you?

Martyn: Without sounding arrogant, I think I’m quite intuitive. My whole thing would be if you’ve got a corporate restructure or somebody who’s a whiz with numbers, or somebody who’s going to go and find a financial solution for things, I am not your guy. There will be 99 people out of 100 better than me to do that. If you’ve got a sticky situation – stakeholder management, broken relationships at a board, breakdowns between investors and boards, I love that stuff. You get in the middle of it. I actually don’t think it’s that hard. I think we’re trying to say, how do I work out the best way to lead this individual? Well, my ‘going in approach’ is to ask them. They’ll normally say to you, “look, if you do this, this and this, that’s going to be great for me, but what switches me off is X and Y”. I can spend a year trying to work it out, or I’ll just ask you. I’ll lead you the way you want to be led, and nine times out of ten it works.

Fiona: It’s amazing how often we over-engineer solutions, when it’s actually just asking the person.

Martyn: Well, yes. You wouldn’t have to sit in too many Friday night pub talks for somebody to say to their partner, “oh, my boss has done it again”. They know what they want, just serve it up.

Fiona: It was great to hear from Martyn about how he brings the ‘treat people how they want to be treated’ mantra to life as a chair. In our next episode, I discuss with Martyn about how business leaders can cope with market ups and downs and still remain focussed on growth, as well as his top advice for CEOs just starting out.

Listen to the next episode here:

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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