Trusted Executive Foundation Interview with Howard Kerr, CEO of BSI Group

Howard was appointed Chief Executive of BSI Group in January 2009.  He has played a leading role in developing a new generation of standards to help organizations become better governed and more responsible.  In 2017, for the 18th consecutive year, BSI achieved record revenue of £473m and an operating surplus of £59.5m. In this interview, Howard talks about trust being at the heart of this independent, not for profit company that has been in existence for over a century with a distinctive self-owned and self-governing structure.

On the importance of trust:

‘Trust is a topic which is close to my heart, and it is at the heart of BSI. Our annual report this year makes specific reference to trust. It struck me when we had a leadership conference in January with over a hundred of our senior leaders from around the world that I should choose a theme that would reflect why we do what we do, rather than just talk about what we do. We are self-governed and self-owned which is quite an unusual structure in this day and age. It’s the independence that we get from the fact that we have no shareholders that creates trust with our clients from knowing that our view is impartial, that it’s high integrity, that it’s not compromised by potentially short-term financial pressures.’

‘We’re not part of the government and we’re not driven by regulatory or policy concerns. Our standards are created in a consensus with consumers, with NGOs, with regulators, and with industry. In a world where people have  fundamentally lost trust in government, in the justice system, in the media, and in big brands, I think there is a fundamental role for organisations like ours to which people can turn to give them a high level of confidence in the products and services they depend on in their business. There is an increasing need to demonstrate trust in business and that is essentially what BSI is providing for our clients and for our employees because it is as important to our employees as it is to our clients.’ 

On building a high trust culture:

‘Most companies don’t have the option to change their ownership structure. It is what it is. We’ve created a brand and a reputation over more than a hundred years. Building a high trust culture doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to earn that over a period of time. We recruit people not just for their technical expertise but for a demonstration of their personal and professional integrity. We have zero tolerance of questionable behaviour around issues of an ethical nature, whether it’s bribery and corruption, or breach of governance, or compliance rules. It’s not just something we talk about doing, we actually do it. And through the performance and development of our people, we continuously track and reinforce the behaviours that represent our values of integrity, inclusivity and continuous improvement. They are constant refrains in the business. All of that sets the tone in the company and enables the 4,000 plus people in BSI to work in a consistent, open way, but it also manifests itself externally as these behaviours are highly valued by our clients. They trust us to give an honest opinion as we see it.’

On the challenges of building trust:

‘I’d only been in the job for five days when I was advised that we had a problem in Mexico where there were allegations of corruption made against our Country President which turned out to be true. Within nine days we took out two of the senior management team and we told people exactly why we had done it. It was the right thing to do and people still talk about “when Howard came in”. It sent very clear signals that our zero tolerance of ethical shortfalls is real. I’m very consistent in this and the whole organisation knows it. It sets the standards from the top, and that’s not just me as the chief executive, it’s the whole management team that has to behave in exactly the same way.’

‘With my executive team we can, and we do, have healthy debates when we are in executive meetings, and when we open the door and walk out of the room we should be as one. If the organisation doesn’t see the top team trusting each other as individuals, how are they going to trust their counterparts in the organisation?  It starts at the top. We’ve had members in the nine years I’ve been here who haven’t been trusted and they are no longer with us. We are a collective, team-based organisation and we have got to be able to trust each other at all levels. We occasionally socialise as a team as human beings outside of the work agenda and I think that’s really important because that builds up trust. We are very open and we share our 360 feedback reports with everybody, and we talk openly about our own individual, personal strengths and weaknesses. It’s only by doing that you learn and get better at being a trusted team that thinks and acts as one.’

On the challenge of measuring trust:

‘Trust is at the heart of what we do, but do we measure trust specifically? No, we don’t which prompts me to think that if trust is that important, why don’t we measure it, and how would we do that? I went back to some of our customer surveys and employee engagement scores and the word trust is not mentioned. It’s implicit in a lot of the questions, but it’s not explicit and this triggers some thinking with me about why don’t we make it explicit? We use proxies like customer satisfaction and employee engagement rather than actually measure trust and make it tangible.’

The Nine Habits of Trust:

nine habits model of trust

Integrity absolutely resonates with BSI and its clear that the company is continuously working at being consistent (Habit No.3) throughout their global organisation. They choose to coach their staff (Habit No.2) as the vehicle for doing that.

Choosing to be brave (Habit No.8) in BSI’s world means taking on difficult challenges in the high-end medical devices business, in the food safety business, in the pharmaceutical industry, and in the aerospace industry. These are high risk, heavily regulated industries where the people in BSI are helping their clients to save people’s lives.

Trust is an ever-growing differentiator for BSI in attracting the talent they need. BSI is growing at 10-15% a year and its employer brand needs to be very strong. “Who they are”, and their values are important to millennials and generation Y who will have a more varied career path than previous generations. When people leave BSI to further their career, the success of the brand will be reflected in how evangelical (Habit No. 7) they choose to be about the BSI. In the world of social media employer brand is so important, and in the goldfish bowl of the modern workplace, if you don’t tell people what you’re doing and what you stand for, they’re not going to come and work for you.

Howard expresses his evangelism for business to the next generation through his involvement in “Speakers for Schools” where he is helping to dispel the media’s huge negativity about business – The “fat cats”, the bankruptcies, the corporate fraud. He talks to 15-18 year olds in inner city schools, where a lot of young people perhaps don’t have role models, about careers in business and what a fantastic opportunity business offers to travel and learn, and how stimulating it can be. In Howard’s words, “If business doesn’t shout about it, no one is going to do it for us”.  Bringing the good news about all that’s good about business is what the Trusted Executive Foundation is passionate about too!

Our thanks to Howard for his time and for allowing us to share his insights from the interview. For more information on the Trusted Executive Foundation please refer to this short introductory video


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