My Zawya Story: The Importance of Independent Board Members

This post is part of the My Zawya Story series.

I have written extensively about corporate governance (both on the board and on management) and will not repeat myself here. What might be useful is to talk a little bit about the human dimension and my Zawya experience provides a perfect opportunity. In the initial years the Zawya board was a mix of the Zawya founders and Saffar executives and appointees. As the company grew and matured two new directors joined: Steffen Schubert and Anthony (Tony) Mallis. They added tremendous value to the Zawya board and to the company itself.

I met Steffen when he was the founding CEO of the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX). Steffen is your quintessential German: polite, proper, unflappable, knows all the rules and follows them. He also makes sure everyone else follows them. As a Chartered Director of the Institute of Directors (UK) and an experienced professional he really ticked most of the boxes that we were looking for. The education value alone to the rest of the directors of the board was invaluable. His ability to continuously bring board discussions back to the relevant governance framework also ensured that we stayed focussed on our responsibilities and did not go bikeshedding.

My initial meetings with Tony where not so smooth. He was the CEO of SICO a prestigious regional investment bank based in Bahrain and he was, and still is, widely respected as a no nonsense and energetic achiever. Tony was a seed investor in Zawya, the round before Saffar got involved. My first meeting with Tony was in my capacity as Chairman of Zawya. We met in his office and he let me know in no uncertain terms that he was not happy with the level of communication from the board. My second meeting was during a shareholder meeting of Zawya when he proceeded to list the faults of the board. As I was considering how to respond I had an epiphany: invite Tony to the board. This piece of mental judo is taught all the time: if some one is on the outside and frustrated with you then bring them inside so that they are helping you. It can be difficult to remember when you are getting a dressing down, but it is a great way to resolve confrontation.

Both men have a decade of experience more than I do and I learnt a lot from them. They brought a level of maturity to the board that balanced the younger passion of the management team. They even balanced each other, Steffen bringing a steadying hand to normal ongoing matters and Tony weighing in, forcefully if need be, on deadlocked matters.

One of the hidden benefits of bringing veterans of many boards to a start up is that they can help the start up board gain a clearer understanding of truly important matters versus procedural issues that can safely be pushed down the priority list. It greatly improved our ability at Zawya to focus on value creation and risk management.

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