What I've Learned as a Board Observer

Guest author Jenni Clutten is a Rental Proposition Manager for Nationwide Building Society

Just before Christmas I got an early present, as I found myself as the Board Observer for two of the start-ups that Nationwide has invested in as part of its venture fund. Having just embarked on a new job within the Society, it was a great to have this opportunity as one of my priorities. I was excited about the possibilities, and wanted to quickly figure out how I could best use my skills to support these impressive businesses.

I knew there was a huge amount we could learn from those that were already out there in the market, identifying problems that needed solving to make tenants’ and landlords’ lives better. The question I most wanted to answer was, “where could Nationwide add value to these businesses outside of financial investment alone?” 

It’s now five months later, and a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt so far. So, let’s get started with some of the obvious (and some not so obvious) reflections of my new life as a Board Observer.


1.     No two ventures are the same

As the Board Observer to two start-ups in the proptech space, I quickly realised that no two start-ups are alike. Despite both businesses being in the same sector, they are creating totally different propositions with completely different teams and approaches while targeting different customer segments. Glancing in from the outside, it could be easy to clump these businesses together, but with insight you quickly realise that each start-up fuses a unique combination of skills, passions and experiences that can’t easily be appreciated from what’s on the balance sheet alone.

The teams and CEOs I work with have different characters and expectations of me, but what they have in common is their efforts to make the most of what Nationwide can offer. There are different ways we can help; we have provided access to experts on topics like open personal finance, joined forces on pilots to trial services with our members, and are starting to work with our venture partners as suppliers as well as providing access to skilled people who can be placed into the organisations via the Venturing Secondment Programme.  


2.     Unexpected creativity

Spending time with the start-up teams has shown me how creative and endlessly resourceful they can be. With a committed bunch of people mulling things over in different ways and turning things upside down, they can share ideas and quickly connect the dots. I can also see that people aren’t scared to step into the unknown, they understand what’s a priority and when all hands are needed on deck. I like this approach to problem solving, it slims down the complexity of issues and brings about a sharp focus on the necessities.


3.     Time is money

Working with start-ups has challenged my understanding of time and urgency. It sounds obvious, but there’s a mental state that comes with having a finite amount of money and time to get stuff done. It drives behaviours and pressure that I’ve never experienced working in a big business and it’s something you can’t artificially replicate. 

I’ve found myself having to reflect on the fact that when I go home at the end of the day I don’t have to feel personally responsible for the weight of Nationwide’s 15 million members – I get to rely on the fact that we can draw on the foundations of over 130 years of Nationwide’s evolution and the other 17,000 people I work with. In small ways I can already see the impact of working with these companies, as we realise that long, drawn-out supplier processes can be a life or death decision for a company with huge potential but limited funds. 


4.     Curveballs are constant

Over the last few months I’ve been in conversation with founders who are assessing new business growth opportunities, and sometimes extinguishing them overnight. It’s safe to say that in three and a half years of working at Nationwide, pivots in organisational direction do not happen overnight; they are meticulously considered and analysed with the risks minimised as far as possible. I can’t help but wonder if all our planning makes us more successful or whether there’s an efficiency we could learn from this fearless environment I’m observing from the start-ups. Overall, through the constant curveballs, I’ve learnt that decision-making is as much a mindset as a set of processes and actions.

5.     The time for feedback and honesty is now

I’ve learnt a new candour from my relationships – there’s no benefit to tiptoeing around challenges and problems. It’s far better to air these as soon as possible. Relationships were always important to me, but now I’m figuring out how to effectively tread the line between advocate and critical friend. The role has helped me develop the confidence and experience to know when to say something, when to listen and when to coach.


The truth is, we at Nationwide have got a lot to give, but we’re humble enough to know we’ve got a lot to learn too. Fancy coming on the journey with us, or have you got any reflections of your own?