Margaret Casely-Hayford was a lawyer for some 30 years: twenty years with City law firm Dentons, where she was made a Partner and then nine years as Director of Legal Services and Company Secretary for the John Lewis Partnership from which she retired in 2014.
She decided in 2014 to transition into a boardroom portfolio career when she was appointed Chair of the charity Action Aid UK. A position she now holds in addition to having been appointed a non-executive director of NHS England in 2012. NHSE is the organisation that has responsibility for the £105bn budget for commissioning the health service in England. She is also on the Metropolitan Police Panel that is overseeing the investigation into police corruption.
She has previously been the John Lewis representative on the Board of the British Retail Consortium; and during her time at Dentons, she was a government appointed special trustee of Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital Charity from 2000 to 2008 and also government appointed trustee of the Geffrye Museum over the same period.
You were the first black female to be made Partner of a City law firm. How did that make you feel?
Sad. Sad, that this sort of thing should have to matter. But pleased for all those who can see that someone has gone before and demonstrated that doors that were previously closed, can be pushed open.
How do you think the opportunities have changed for black females in law over the last 15 years?
The opportunities for women in the law improve significantly all the time; and it was heartening to read of the increase in numbers of women in the judiciary. More women make partnership in law firms, or get onto the bench all the time. But the mystery around taking silk is still slightly predicated on knowledge of the candidate by the decision makers; and men are better at self promotion. Also there are bastions of maleness like the Garrick Club, which can’t help but foster an environment that creates better relationships amongst senior male barristers that leaves women out in the cold; and might influence things, even inadvertently. For similar reasons, the progress of black and minority ethnic people in the law is still frustratingly slow; and we still have a long way to go in terms of equalization of pay between the genders. But progress is being made every day!
Now you Chair the Board of Action Aid UK. What’s the connection between what you do as Chair and what happens in some of the poorest countries around the world?
We have seen that the collapse of the charity, Kids Company has left thousands of vulnerable children who are reliant on the charity to suffer from its demise. This is a stark reminder that charities cannot be run purely by people with a good heart: there has to be good governance. The Chair and the Board of trustees have to hold management to account to ensure that there is accountability for income and expenditure. We have to ask the hard questions on behalf of both the donors and the beneficiaries so that so far as is possible, we can make sure that the poorest and most vulnerable who are, after all, the intended beneficiaries continue to benefit from all the wonderful donations we receive.
How can Boards of private and public companies ensure not only transparency, but that they are working for the good of all parties?
Good governance is about systems and structures that underpin and facilitate the right relationships. It should be clear from the organisation’s structure what each individual has received in terms of a delegation and from whom and therefore to whom they owe a duty of periodic reports. Trust and a good flow of information will create the right dynamics. Honesty about what is going well; what is going less well (and how any issues are being handled); and about what is frankly appalling and on which management might need the support and direction of the Board, is critical to good organisational management. No CEO or Chair should ever be in the position of Tony Hayward at the time that BP flooded the Gulf, who was left talking to the world’s press without anything much to say. If the CEO, Chair or Board hear nothing, that doesn’t mean that all is well. It means that the structure of the organisation is not fit for purpose!
Your roles today focus very much on tackling inequality. Where do you see the greatest inequalities in our own society in the UK?
There are inequalities in education and opportunity but almost worse than that are inequalities in motivation that stem from the fact that some parts of society feel totally disengaged and disenfranchised. This is a massive time-bomb and limits their perception of the opportunities that exist; and we need to make sure that information about our civic power to influence and to change things rests with each of us.
It was so interesting that the Scots managed to communicate simply, and to motivate so powerfully in the run up to the referendum and obtained 97% engagement from the electorate (including young people) as a consequence. So it can be done. In fact this is what ActionAid does really well: motivating people in the countries in which we operate to engage with their governments and remind the government of its responsibility to provide infrastructure for essentials for all, eg drainage, water, housing transport, health and education!
(Our society does a bizarre thing and that is we reward those who make money, more highly than we reward those who educate our children and those who look after our health. And financial reward brings with it a certain skewed respect. This means doctors, nurses, social workers and teachers are increasingly less well respected than anyone who has money. That is a pecularly sad imbalance, and one that definitely needs to be redressed!)
Finally, you’ve previously said that it was a childhood ambition to be Secretary-General of the United Nations. Is it still an ambition?
Do you know, because I am involved with an organisation that focusses on humanitarian work, I feel closer to that ambition than ever before. So perhaps I will aim for the objectives of the UN – without the self-aggrandisement!