The FTSE 350 Boardroom Bellwether is a yearly survey by the Financial Times and The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland that seeks to gauge the sentiment inside British boardrooms. It canvasses the views of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 company secretaries to find out how boards are responding to the challenges of the economy, market conditions and the wider business and governance environment.
Questions cover a range of business concerns, topical issues and specific governance matters to provide unique insight into what British boards are thinking. Some questions change from survey to survey, but the core remains the same, to reveal trends and shifts in opinion.
The full report, available to download from this page, outlines the key findings of the latest survey, which took place in April and May 2023. It covers, amongst others:
There has been a return of confidence about the global economy. Last year, 76% of respondents were expecting a decline in global economic conditions. This year, only 29% are expecting a decline, with 48% of respondents expecting slight or signification improvement. Companies are similarly more optimistic about the economic outlook for their own sectors, with 44% expecting a slight or significant improvement, compared to only 16% last year.
The increase in confidence is perhaps most stark in relation to the UK economy – although absolute levels of optimism are still outweighed by pessimism. Whilst only one third (33%) of this year’s respondents stated that they are expecting an improvement in the UK economy, this is an eleven-fold increase on last year, where only 3% were expecting to see any improvement. This year, 41% expect to see the UK economy decline, whereas 76% expected a decline last year.
Regarding the UK’s competitiveness, there has not been such an increase in confidence, and pessimism remains. Over half (56%) reported that they expect UK competitiveness to decline over the next year, with only a slim fraction (15%) expecting an increase. Key factors influencing competitiveness are seen to include inflation, skills shortages, ongoing issues following Brexit, forex, political uncertainty and regulation.
Over the Bellwether’s history, there has been significant progress made in board diversity. This year, 94% of respondents reported that their board is gender diverse and 77% consider their board to be ethnically diverse. 19% of the FTSE 350 respondents are already voluntarily reporting their ethnic pay gap, with another 19% planning to within the next three years. For the first time, the Bellwether asked about socio-economic diversity, and encouragingly, four fifths (82%) consider it to be a topic relevant to board discussions, with over half (51%) already having engaged with the issue at board level.
Amidst the cost-of-living crisis, every single respondent (100%) reported having taken action on workforce remuneration. There were various approaches taken, but the most popular were awarding higher percentage pay increases to lower-paid employees (62%) and making a one-off cost-of-living payment targeted at lower-paid employees (47%).
This year’s Bellwether asked whether increasing reporting requirements are reducing the time available for strategic discussions at board level. Over four fifths of respondents (81%) believe that they are, either to some or to a large extent.
With regards to board recruitment, just over half of respondents (55%) answered that their executive pipeline is sufficient to provide a sustainable pool of talented and diverse board members, with 26% stating that it is not. Executive remuneration is, as ever, a sticky topic, and this year the vast majority of respondents (92%) reported that they have factored in the cost-of-living crisis to their considerations when setting executive pay.
Half of this years’ respondents record an increase in their exposure to risk, with under 4% noting a decrease. This year, respondents ranked cyber risk as the number one factor (compared to third last year), whilst global economic risks came in second and climate change third.
62% of boards have discussed climate change at four or meetings over the last year, whilst 15% have discussed it eight or more times, and no respondents admit to never discussing it. Encouragingly, these discussions are being backed up by action, with 80% of boards having established climate change plans. In addition, 43% have developed and another 39% are developing tangible net zero transition plans – complete with milestones and targets, rather than simply a pledge or. However, meeting ESG reporting requirements is fairly difficult for two-thirds of companies (66%) and very difficult for 15% of respondents.
The majority of governance professionals have seen governance budgets maintained at a similar level year-on-year, whilst 23% have seen an increase in the budget available to them this year. However, recruiting skilled talent within governance teams remains a significant challenge, with 64% finding it difficult to fill roles in the previous 12 months, and no respondents finding the process very easy.