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Standard-bearers for the board

A new 'chartered directors' qualification aims to improve expertise and integrity.
The Institute of Directors is not everybody's idea of a ground- breaking organisation. Yet it can justly claim it will be taking an important step tomorrow when it announces the establishment of what it says is the world's first professional standard specifically for directors.

Launching the title "chartered director" is not to be seen as an isolated incident, however. Lord Tony Newton, the former Conservative Cabinet minister who is now the institute's director of professional standards, sees it as "part of a continuous process" stretching back over two decades.

In that time, the organisation has run various courses aimed at making its members more effective in the boardroom. But the chartered director status should be seen as a follow-on to the assessed diploma, which was introduced about 18 months ago. More than 200 people have acquired the qualification, representing a pass rate of about 65 per cent.

Moreover, while keen to take a lead in this area, the institute also stresses that the initiative reflects a growing interest in corporate governance in Britain and the rest of the world. Lord Newton points out that the British government, for example, is increasingly requiring those appointed to the boards of NHS trusts, colleges of further education and other public-sector bodies to attend induction courses, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is pressing for international guidelines for company boards.

There will always be a place for the entrepreneur with flair and drive, adds Lord Newton. But increasingly there are signs that even people like this want to build on their strengths by acquiring greater expertise.

The institute sees the plan as likely to appeal particularly to people in their late 30s and 40s who are either running their own businesses or looking to become directors of larger organisations. The main focus is on executive directors, but the institute thinks that non-executives will seek the status as well, since the introduction of the Stock Exchange's Combined Code on corporate governance puts extra emphasis on the professionalism of non-executive directors.

Understandably, Lord Newton will not be drawn on whether he believes that former ministerial colleagues and other politicians who have in the past slipped, apparently effortlessly, from Westminster to the City should go through the programme. But the idea seems to have caught the imagination of IoD members. Two months after the plan was launched with little fanfare, there have been more than 1,000 inquiries.

Mark Watson, the institute's professional affairs executive, believes this reflects a growing interest in self-development. Already, members devote 4,000 to 5,000 man-hours a year to the organisation's courses. Research indicates that in 1990, 10 per cent of directors had prepared for their role, while last year the figure was 65 per cent.

Would-be chartered directors also have not only to take an exam but also submit themselves to a "professional review" that includes assessment of their experience and an interview with two senior directors and subscribe to a code of professional conduct.

The latter requires directors to act with integrity and probity and to accept that failure to comply carries the threat of fines or expulsion from the institute, along with public announcements of adverse findings.

Since the organisation has been around for nearly the entire century, it might seem odd that it has waited until now to seek Privy Council approval for the by-law changes to enable it to confer chartered status on suitably- qualified members. But Lord Newton and Mr Watson point out that at least the delay means its approach is a modern one. Just as the examination involves independent assessment, so there will be outside involvement in the chartered accreditation board.

For years, many have seen becoming a company director as more like joining a cosy club than taking responsibility for a cog in the wheel of national wealth-creation. But that could be about to change. The initiative, says Lord Newton, "creates a benchmark".

But perhaps the greatest indication of the value of improving the professionalism of directors lies in Mr Watson's point that attendance on an IoD course can lead to a 10 per cent discount on directors' indemnity insurance. The IoD is seeking a further discount for those who attain the chartered director status, on the grounds that they are likely to be better risks.