Alan Pickering: Diverse boards are essential to avoid groupthink

Pardon the Interruption

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by Alan Pickering CBE, president of Bestrustees

The concept of inclusion has been inextricably linked with my personal and professional existences. 

Due to an inherited condition, one of my characteristics has been a visual impairment. Most of my work in the world of pensions has been focused on the inclusion of diverse groups in the membership of quality schemes and the governance of those schemes.  
 
My visual impairment meant that education in standard schools had limited availability. Local special schools could only equip me for survival. GCE qualifications would involve going to a boarding school.  
 
My parents felt that education was so important that special schools were a better prospect than sitting at the back of the class and being ignored in ordinary schools. Many children and some parents could be very cruel in their attitude to folk who attended special schools. I came face-to-face with social distancing long before it became trendy.
 
On completion of my education, my parents wanted me to go to work rather than university, since the former was the normal thing to do in our part of town. 

Luckily, my father had worked all his life on the railway, and British Rail, despite their initial reluctance, begrudgingly gave me a job. This was despite failing the one-size-fits-all eyesight test which confirmed I could never be an engine driver. 

Giving me the job was subject to the caveat that I would never secure promotion. 


Having got my feet under the table, I did get promoted a couple of times.
 
This experience colours my judgment of the contemporary debate about the relative merits of those who face particular challenges getting any job or getting the top job. In an ideal world, both would be on offer.  

However, less than 25% of visually handicapped adults have a job.  Like me, they should be given a chance to do any job, in the hope that advancement would follow. If you haven't got a job, you cannot make it to the top.

More far-sighted employers

 
My parents wanted me to have a job that was pensionable. Little did they know that pensions would become my job. Subsequent employers - EETPU, Watsons and BESTrustees - were more far-sighted than British Rail. 

Each of these employers provided me with human assistance to help me fulfil my potential. And ever present in all three employments has been Jenny Davie, my best friend, who along with my mother and wife have ensured that I did not throw in the towel.  

Others at each workplace have also been helpful, as have thousands of people with whom I come into contact the length and breadth of Britain and around the world as I pursue my career in pensions.
 
My first exposure to working in pensions coincided with the contracting-out provisions of the Social Security Pensions Act 1975. In the short term, contracting out was a financial no-brainer, although the chickens subsequently came home to roost. The contracting-out legislation compelled employers to consult with their trade unions on the implications of the new legislation.
 
As a trade union official at the time, I wanted to ensure that although this might be the first time that pensions were discussed with the employer, it would not be the last.  

At the time, there was a move to single status employment so that blue-collar workers were gaining access to pension schemes that had previously been the preserve of their white-collar colleagues. Single status pensions were the target, even though diverse career trajectories meant that no one form of defined benefit accrual met the needs of all concerned.
 
The aim of ongoing involvement was twofold in nature. On the one hand, shaping the benefit package was important; hand-in-hand with that right went the responsibility of trusteeship.  
 

I advocated member participation in trusteeship not because it was democratic but because, through diversity, it would improve outcomes.  


The route to office which I preferred for trustees was that of selection rather election. The former meant that you could put together a team with complementary skills. The latter approach would mean that the big battalions won out on every occasion.
 
I remain convinced today that diverse boards are essential if groupthink is to be avoided. While I am an ardent advocate of trustee training, I think that we miss a trick if we do not allow trustees the ability to leverage the skills of their day jobs to the benefit of trustee boards.  

My favourite client has a trustee board which does just that. Every member of that board is suitable to be on a board. The diverse skills that they bring to the table make it a super board.
 
I was given an opportunity by Alistair Darling in 2001 to see if we could slow down the demise of defined benefit schemes. As a result of well-intentioned legislation, pension best endeavour had been converted into pension guarantee. This meant that a fortress mentality provided more and more protection for those inside our pension tent, and the cost of entry was so high that no-one else could come in.
 
Although there was not political appetite for reducing prescription in 2001, auto-enrolment came along a decade later on the back of a positive political decision to spread the pensions cake more thinly.  Hopefully, diversity of provision will still meet diverse needs.
 
Having helped train trustees in the past, I have now exchanged the mortar board for the playing kit. I am now a full-time professional trustee with a wonderfully diverse group of clients.  
 
Little did my parents know that my job would not only be pensionable but would be pensions. You are what you do - I am proud to do pensions. My parents would be proud that doing pensions has meant that I have been in pensionable and taxable employment for 50 years so far. This would be in line with the social contracts to which their humble beginnings led them to aspire.