Jonathan Geldart – Director General, Institute of Directors
Leading the way - Exclusive Interview with CEO Today Magazine
The IoD has been at the heart of business since its formation in 1903. The Royal Charter, awarded in 1906, charged the IoD with promoting free enterprise, lobbying government and setting standards for corporate governance. Today, the IoD remain the authority on entrepreneurialism, professionalism in business and good governance in the UK and beyond.
CEO Today Magazine caught up with Jonathan Geldart – Director General, Institute of Directors for an exclusive interview.
“My name is Jonathan Geldart and I am the Director General of the Institute of Directors.
The IoD is the UK’s leading membership organisation for business leaders. Our membership includes directors from right across the business spectrum – from media to manufacturing, from professional services to the public and voluntary sectors. Members include CEOs of large corporations as well as entrepreneurial directors of start-up companies.
This year, we are celebrating our 120th year. We also received a Royal Charter in 1906, instructing us to “represent the interests of members and of the business community to government and in the public arena, and to encourage and foster a climate favourable to entrepreneurial activity and wealth creation.”
The Charter also tasks the Institute with promoting “for the public benefit high levels of skill, knowledge, professional competence and integrity on the part of directors”, which the IoD seeks to achieve through its training courses and publications on corporate governance.”
Can you tell us about the career journey that led you to become Director General at the IoD?
Having started my career in the brewing industry, I spent 16 years at PwC, covering experience in insolvency, corporate finance, marketing strategy and their middle market practice.
After I left PwC, I walked to the North Pole. And that was a kind of seminal moment for me – doing something that was very different, but which taught me a lot about leadership and resilience.
I was then appointed to the global board of Grant Thornton International Ltd. This included 10 years in China, doing a lot of cross-cultural work – advising boards of member firms about operations and brand development. I worked to bring five separate Chinese accounting firms together within Grant Thornton in China and ended up working with the Chinese government on helping them on the rebranding of the Chinese accounting profession. So, I was intimately involved in writing the guidelines for the branding of Chinese accounting firms, which seems a bit weird now, but I received a letter of thanks so it must be true!
Whilst I was commuting between Yorkshire and Beijing, I joined the Institute of Directors in the North of England to maintain my network in the UK. As part of that, I got involved as a volunteer in North Yorkshire, becoming the branch chair, before becoming the Chair for Yorkshire and the North East region.
Throughout my career I have worked with a lot of different types of organisations but, because accounting firms internationally run as member organisations, I have a good deal of experience of membership organisation and the structures, systems, protocols and approaches that you have to have in order to run an international membership organisation.
So, when the Director General role came up in 2019, I was stupid enough to apply! I moved from poacher to gamekeeper, knowing all about Brexit but nothing of the other challenges that were just around the corner.
What changes has the IoD gone through since your arrival in 2019?
The organisation has undergone fundamental change, not least because of COVID. Overnight, we lost two thirds of our business in March 2020. We simply could not run any of our face-to-face professional development courses and we also saw a decline in our membership.
That meant restructuring the business. Whilst that unfortunately led to a number of people having to leave, it acted as a catalyst for the acceleration of some of the changes that, frankly, the Institute needed to take. And then, just as the economy was emerging from COVID, Putin invaded Ukraine, and we have seen a huge change in the political environment. So, as with all businesses, it has clearly been a challenging period.
But what it has all meant is that we have had to be super-focused on going back to the roots of why the Institute was set up in 1903, and why it received its Royal Charter in 1906, which is about improving the quality of directors. Better directors for a better world.
We do this through enabling members to connect with peers facing familiar challenges and helping them to develop their skills and knowledge through our world-class professional development courses, including our gold standard Chartered Director programme.
But what we have also seen during this period is that we have been fortunate to have an unprecedented level of engagement with the UK government, enabling us to influence the people making decisions that touch our directors’ world. The voice of our members was, and continues to be, well heard by UK government ministers – particularly in relation to the middle market of UK business. This is based to a large degree on our deliberate shift towards an evidence-based approach. We do not opine on matters; we evidence our opinion through research, harnessing the data that we gather from our members.
Have you seen your own skills grow during this period?
I think that in many ways I was pretty well-equipped from my previous roles. Rebranding Grant Thornton globally from a tired 1970s brand into a more vibrant 21st century brand and then working in China taught me a lot about resilience, self-sufficiency and finding ways to get things done. You also have to be quite resilient to go out to the middle of nowhere, walking in temperatures of -16 degrees with polar bears for company, like I did to the North Pole.
However, a key thing that I have learnt whilst at the IoD is how to manage the complexities of a highly governed organisation. I had lots of experience of working with global boards, but dealing with what is essentially a PLC board is a very different animal. And that is all to the good. The Institute is set up in such a way as to be accountable to our members, and to society as a whole. It means I am much more acutely aware of the impact of decisions than I ever was before.
And there’s nothing quite like making mistakes to improve your quality of decision-making. So yes, my skills have certainly grown!
Do you have a vision for the IoD and its role in the UK?
Absolutely. When I came into the organisation in 2019, I remember going into Number 10 Downing Street and being asked this exact question. My answer remains the same now as it was then.
I have a 100-year vision for the Institute, and that is something that really comes out of my experience in China – having a really long-term view. We can do that at the Institute of Directors because we have been around for 120 years. Therefore, having a 100-year view is perfectly appropriate. Our immediate objective is to regain the Institute’s position as the preeminent voice for directors in the United Kingdom, then to grow and still be here in another 100 years, representing the directors of the day in being the best they can be.
I believe we have recovered from the issues of the past and we will now continue to thrive. We will do so by being single-minded about what we offer, not getting distracted – through providing world class education to business leaders; through being an honest, independent voice for business, and through providing our members with the best value we can.
How has the IoD supported its members through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine, energy price increases and cost-of-living challenges?
I think the main thing we have done is fight in their corner. Sometimes we have lost the immediate arguments with government, but we have always fought in their corner. Through engaging with our membership, we have listened to the issues that they are facing on the ground and their views on how the government can provide the right framework for them to plan effectively and allow their businesses to thrive. It has also allowed us to develop the evidence to make their case. Our member surveys give us the mechanism whereby we can listen and then distil what they say clearly and consistently, enabling us to be evidence-based when we are going to talk to government ministers across the Nations.
The second thing that we have done is ensure that all members, no matter where they are across the country and internationally, are able to access and benefit from the full range of support and services that we provide. So that meant moving much of our offer online – in particular with regards to our professional development courses, but also other activities such as our events and member connections.
What is interesting is that there is no correlation between GDP growth or decline and learning and development. People still want to invest in themselves as much – if not more so – in a downturn as they do when things are on the up. So we stuck to our guns on that. We provided members with the ability to continue to develop themselves through a range of courses, both small and large. We extended the breadth of what we do and we are refreshing our course content to ensure it is up to date and relevant as the landscape shifts and changes.
We are now more accessible to more members wherever they are in terms of physical locations as well, bringing more value to members. We now have 48 locations around the UK that are open for members to drop in and use. And we are continuing to reshape the way that we deliver locally for our members.
What is it that motivates you to achieve success in your role?
As I have already alluded to, I am a proud Yorkshireman. We are known for being somewhat stubborn! So, I think that where I get most satisfaction is in beating the naysayers. If people say it is not possible, I will try and prove them that it is. People have, for a long time, said that the Institute of Directors was in terminal decline. But I would like to think that we have proved that it is not.
I have always set myself big, audacious goals. Having a team around me that share the same level of belief is great, because we all believe we can do something here and that the organisation is worth investing in and developing. The IoD can and does move with the times.
After a decade of membership decline, we have seen first a flattening off of that and now membership is growing. We are seeing that over a third of new members are women, that the average age of our current intake is in their early 40s and that they come from all parts of the UK and internationally. That is a far cry from the perception of the Institute as a predominantly older, male, London-centric organisation. We have a clear purpose and a focused five-year strategy. Of course we make mistakes, but we are agile and flexible in our response and we’re doing something that’s immensely worthwhile.
Can you share anything about IoD’s plans for development in 2023 and the future?
We are going to continue to focus our attention on the next generation of directors whilst supporting our existing members. The future of the economy, the future of business in the UK, is going to come from that next generation. We are therefore focussed on reshaping the Institute to make it more attractive to a younger and more diverse group of directors – ensuring that we are representative of wider society. We are here to support them in their learning, development and expansion of their horizons. I am delighted that that work is paying off. However, there is more to do. We will absolutely be focused on adding value for members and hopefully adding more members. We are also upgrading and extending our courses. As well, we will seek to engage with government wherever we can to the wider economic benefit of our members, and indeed the country.
Director General, Institute of Directors
Address: 116 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5ED
Phone: +44 (0) 20 3855 4308