Interview: Samantha Barber, Iberdrola

Samantha Barber's energies are centred on work in Bilbao and family leisure at Yellowcraigs. Picture: Joey Kelly
Samantha Barber's energies are centred on work in Bilbao and family leisure at Yellowcraigs. Picture: Joey Kelly
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THERE are supposed to be more women on the boards of big companies in the UK by now but, two years after a UK government-appointed panel set a target for wider representation, progress has stalled.

In April, a report card on Lord Davies’ review, which set a target of 25 per cent of women making up FTSE-100 boards by 2015, gave a “could do better” mark.

The Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders report showed that while there were 194 female-held directorships in FTSE-100 boardrooms, this only equated to 17.3 per cent, a slight increase on last year’s figure of 15 per cent.

Worries that hiring had slowed inrecent months mean that the targets – set in lieu of government-mandated quotas – gave rise to fears that complacency had set in, which would risk firms not hitting the mark in 2015.

Much effort is being put behind encouraging companies to recruit and promote senior female employees and directors, in an effort to prevent them from being hit with the stick of quotas. A highly-divisive issue, the prevailing view in the UK is that increasing diversity – arguably a wider aim than just growing the number of women – on boards is in itself a beneficial end, which needs to be speeded up but without making still largely male-dominated boards baulk at the change.

At the same time as it published its report criticising the slowing of progress in hiring more women, Cranfield produced a handy reckoner pointing to a wealth of talent available to UK companies. Its 100 Women to Watch List was designed to flag up an “ever-growing talent pool of women who search consultancies and nomination committees should be considering”.

The list included two well-known Scottish names. One was Wendy Alexander, the former head of Scottish Labour and currently the associate dean of London Business School. Another was Samantha Barber, a non-executive director of Iberdrola, the Spanish owner of ScottishPower.

Alongside Lady Susan Rice, the managing director of Lloyds Banking Group Scotland and a member of the court of the Bank of England, Barber is one of Scotland’s most high-profile – and successful – women with a portfolio non-executive director career.

She is successful in a number of ways. In 2012, Barber was well remunerated by the Iberdrola board to the tune of €455,000 (£386,627) including a €74,000 attendance fee.

However, she is also successful in that her role on the board of the company, which turned over €34.2bn and made a pre-tax profit of €3bn last year, was renewed and extended.

Since her initial appointment in 2008, she has been given more responsibilities, including chairing the group’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) committee.

The appointment chimes with her previous role as the chief executive of Scottish Business in the Community, a membership organisation that drives companies to adopt and implement socially responsible practices. Prior to that, she had a number of roles in government policy in both the UK and continental Europe.

When she was recruited to the board of Iberdrola five years ago, the odds had seemed to favour other horses who worked alongside her on the ScottishPower board, including Sir Tom Farmer, Lord John Kerr of Kinlochard and Lord Angus Macdonald of Tradeston.

Barber has “immense regard” for Iberdrola’s chief executive and chairman, Ignacio Galan, who she says is forward thinking in terms of how he builds the board but also with a keen eye the interests of the business.

She said: “He [Galan] got three very experienced executives as non-executive directors, who brought in different aspects to the ScottishPower subsidiary board. And he got an international Spanish-speaking CSR specialist – and female – on the board in Spain. The balance of what he achieved in his appointment was ideal. I was delighted to be appointed. But what for me was more rewarding was being re-elected last year, because that re-election means have made a meaningful contribution to the board.”

Barber dismisses the need for quotas as “artificial”, adding: “I understand there is an impatience – but you need to manage that in a way that totally chimes with what the business requirements are. There aren’t hundreds of people on the board, there are only a small number. So wherever you have got change on the board in terms of composition it needs to be managed in the right way. Iberdrola in seven years now has four women on the board.”

Yet, she is a passionate advocate for the need for improved diversity on boards – whether it is more women, or just others who are not cut from the same corporate cookie cutter.

“Diversity isn’t just a gender issue,” she says. “Traditionally there has been a tendency to recruit from the same mould. That is not just about gender – that is a lot of things.

“For me, diversity in the boardroom is actually about the age spectrum. It is about bringing more women in – but also bringing people with diverse
experience, expertise, career trajectory – that brings a richness into that category.

“The effectiveness of the board is about the diversity and chemistry of those around the board table. That makes for a more-challenging environment. It is much less challenging if everyone looks and thinks the same as you do.

“When you are on a board, what matters is your perspective, your outlook, the hinterland of expertise you bring.

“To be able to effective on the board, you need to bring lots of good business acumen, rigorous independent thinking, sound judgments and a degree of tact and diplomacy.

“Today’s board room isn’t a make bastion of aggression. That is not how business is conducted. It is conducted with robust, intellectual thinking. It is the use of the power influence and persuasion. These are not attributes that are gender specific.”

For Barber, her success is about tenacity. She quotes her family motto: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best”.

As a mother of two young children, aged eight and five, it has also been about choosing to “make it work” for her. She is often up at 5:30am to catch the red eye to Bilbao to attend monthly board meetings. She is of that generation of women who has both a family and a fast-track career.

“A lot of women who are at senior levels never took much time out for their children. And that is a choice. I made that choice. I know other women whose salary went on childcare for a good number of years. That was a choice they wanted to make. These aren’t choices for everyone. I know many women who wouldn’t want my lifestyle.”

For others who wish to follow in her footsteps and build a portfolio career, she advises them to first look at charity boards as a means of getting experience.