FT–ICSA Boardroom Bellwether survey Winter 2017

The FT–ICSA Boardroom Bellwether is a twice-yearly survey of FTSE 350 companies that seeks to gauge the sentiment inside UK boardrooms. It canvasses the views of their 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 concerns 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.

Use the tabs below to explore the key findings of the Winter 2017 FT–ICSA Boardroom Bellwether Survey, which was published in January 2018.

The business environment

This latest survey of economic confidence shows boards less pessimistic about growth prospects in the UK and overseas than they have been in the past 18 months. In December 2016 only 16% of respondents were anticipating any improvement in global economic conditions, but this figure has now risen to 27%. Furthermore, even in the UK, where confidence has been particularly low over recent surveys, 8% now expect an improvement, up from 5% in the summer.

The results potentially reflect a greater level of belief that some sort of deal with the EU will be achieved, the survey having been undertaken while EU and UK negotiators were in talks. That said, 18 months on from the EU Referendum, its impact continues to be felt more negatively than positively, with just over half the respondents stating that Brexit will cause some or significant damage to their business and 43% of respondents indicating that Brexit is included amongst the principal risks facing the company. 

Despite this, only one respondent’s company is considering moving its head office or a substantial part of its business from the UK to the EU and plans for capital expenditure reflect a slight increase in business confidence.

Board composition

Pressure to improve board diversity continues, yet despite the high-profile initiatives to improve gender balance and broaden ethnic and cultural diversity, progress towards achieving boards that are more representative of customers and their markets remains disappointingly, although not necessarily unexpectedly, slow.

That said, the number of boards that rate themselves as gender diverse has increased to 71% from the usual 66%, which is where opinions have been firmly stuck for the last three years, and only 6% of respondents now regard their board as not diverse in terms of gender. Nevertheless, women still remain underrepresented at senior level generally and the FTSE 250 has not achieved the same level of progress in appointing women to boards as the FTSE 100.  The most concerning issue, however, remains that of ethnic diversity, where only 31% of respondents consider their boards to be ethnically diverse and 53% believe that they are not.

Despite the continued pressure for companies to pay more attention to identifying and developing future talent from a much wider pool of candidates, this survey’s results show a worrying decline, with only 43% of respondents believing that their pipeline is sufficient, down from 53% in the summer. It is also disappointing to find that plans to address the problem were surprisingly vague.


Cyber risk remains the primary risk issue facing FTSE 350 companies with 80% of respondents believing that their exposure to cyber risk is increasing (the same percentage as in December 2016) and 90% revealing that their board is increasing spending on mitigation of cyber risk. Legal risk and political risk also feature heavily, both at 56%, with legal risk up from 42% and political risk down from 66% in summer 2017.

Tax transparency and the public expectation that companies will not engage in aggressive tax avoidance is a hot topic, with 85% of respondents stating that their board had discussed reputational or other risks around tax practices. Given the numerous sexual harassment claims in 2017, we asked whether boards felt that current policies and guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace were fit for purpose. 52% of respondents indicated that their board was satisfied or very satisfied, but 33% did not know which suggests that the matter has not been discussed at board level. It should be.

Regulation and compliance

The majority of companies believe that their company will be ready for the General Data Protection Regulation requirements that come into effect this May. 89% of respondents say that they will be ready, slightly down from the 93% that felt this way in summer 2017. ICSA guidance on the subject (www.icsa.org.uk/gdpr) is available to help those companies that still have work to do.

Reporting on the gender pay gap does not appear to have been as difficult as some might have anticipated. 44% indicated that it was not difficult, although a third said that it was.

Executive pay 

We took the opportunity to examine the degree to which FTSE 350 remuneration committees take into account some of the criteria suggested in the UK government’s Green Paper on Corporate Governance. 68% of respondents told us that their remuneration committee had made changes to a remuneration policy following feedback from investors. Additionally, 93% confirmed that their remuneration committees consider pay structures and incentives across the wider workforce and two-thirds take the pay ratio between the CEO and average employee into consideration.


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