Whether it be for career aspiration, looking to make a difference in how a company is run, philanthropic ambition, or a desire to work with a cause close to your heart, joining a board of directors provides a number of benefits.

During 2020, businesses and their boards experienced greater levels of scrutiny. Importantly, research continues to show that increased diversity in the boardroom is connected to stronger corporate performance

At a recent Michael Page webinar, in partnership with veski, Genevieve Overell AM (GO) moderated a panel of executives who serve on a variety of boards. Stacey Ong (SO), Andrew Pipolo (AP) and Dr Leonie Walsh (LW) provided insights to their experiences during the session, with challenges such as board diversity and expectations explored. 

“Taking on a board role was something that sparked my interest very early in my career. As a young lawyer, I was encouraged by my partners to look to community service and volunteering. This led me to realise that much can be achieved through both professional and community service organisations,” Overell shared.

“Building a board portfolio can be part of building a career – I had a dual track where I identified boards and committees that I could serve on, which would build my knowledge, experience and profile along my journey to becoming a partner at a national law firm.”

Leela Lewis, Director at Michael Page said the webinar was an opportunity to bring both organisations’ values to life through this partnership.

“This is the second time we’ve partnered with the veski STEM sidebyside program, as we believe it aligns with our company value of changing lives. Today’s webinar aims to provide examples of pathways to securing your first board role, or to provide you with the insights on how to better understand strategies to grow your board portfolio,” she said.

The panel shared their advice and personal experiences in the Q&A discussion below.

GO: How do you find your first board role?

AP: I was terrible at networking, so I’d encourage anyone looking for board position to really start there. Let it be known that you’re interested and focus on your area of expertise. I would recommend updating your LinkedIn profile to show you are open to board positions. If you’re able to join the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), they have ‘speed dating’ sessions for board positions as well as courses. These are all effective avenues. So spend the time to contact people who are key to influencing you to get on a board.

GO: What are common board challenges for directors?

LW: One of the challenges I find is to work out whether the board is focused more on procedural activities or strategic input of the organisation because it can be frustrating if you’re not really helping to make decisions that progress the organisation. So work out what boards are the right fit for you and what your intent is for joining that board.

SO: Ensuring the quality of the information is a common challenge across all boards because that really frames the quality of the discussion and the decisions you make. We need to be cognisant of asking for the right information if it’s not there. We need to have sufficient information to satisfy yourself as a director to make decisions as a board, collectively.

AP: I think one of the significant challenges I’ve come across is to remember what role you play on the board – you are there to protect all shareholder interests and sometimes that conflicts with management, the CEO and your own personal position at times.

GO: Do I need formal qualifications to be on a board of directors?

LW: I didn’t have any formal qualifications on the first few boards that I joined, it was more about interests and professional skills that helped from at a contribution level. As the environment became  more focused on the liabilities issues for boards and roles and accountabilities of board members, I started to complete courses and regularly top up to make sure I’m up to date with what are the requirements of responsibilities of a board member.

GO: That’s a very important point to keep in mind. Being a director is, in fact, a professional commitment. So to have a foundation of governance training, financial literacy and experience across a number of different sectors will serve you very well. And on an ongoing basis, we all take on formal and informal programs to maintain currency of knowledge, and a whole range of laws and regulations relevant to the responsibilities and duties of boards.

SO: When recruiting for boards, governance is incredibly important, but we were looking for the right mix of people to get the magic of a strong, effective board. We’re very cognisant of skill gaps, that we would provide some training or buddy with someone else to meet particular skill gaps. And networking has been an avenue of finding particular recruits.

GO: What are the time commitment expectations, particularly amid full-time employment?

AP: If you’re on a publicly listed will be quite onerous. If it’s on a privately held entity or wholly-owned subsidiary it will be less. But it’s never as little as people think. For me, it averages out to around 5 hours per week for each board position. It does depend on the issues. It’s not just “turn up, read the board papers and go home”.

SO: I’m on a not-for-profit board, which can really be more hands-on in the “doing”. The time commitment depends on the kind of issues that the board is facing, the kind of board that you’re on and also your position on the board. I spent a year as acting chair and that was an enormous amount of work, even though I had been on the board three years prior.

GO: Can you tell between a good board and a dysfunctional one?

SO: I would suggest that as part of your due diligence, you have a coffee with some existing board members because it will give you perspectives on what the current board culture is like. Also asking around your network about what they’ve heard about the board.

GO: How do you tackle a non-diverse board?

AP: Certainly in Australia there’s been a greater push to have better female representation on boards. I met with a company that only does board appointments and they told me that 70% of their briefs must be female board members – this was mandated. So that’s a positive sign.

LW: While I’m participating in a board role, when I’m asked for names or connections, I refer women or those from a broader group of what the current board consists of. So there’s an opportunity, as the only woman on a board, to keep promoting and encouraging improvement of diversity.

SO: Suggest the board develop a D&I strategy. That way, boards can explicitly consider and endorse a strategy. Without having an explicit approach, with objectives, KPIs and implementation plan, D&I will just be an idea or a desire. 

GO: Being on a board has almost become an assumed career step but not everyone is suited. What are your considerations?

SO: Consider the time commitment. If it’s an unpaid board role, it becomes very clear, do you want to spend x-amount of time working on issues, with this particular organisation? If the answer is no, then it’s very clear. Don’t assume a board role is for everyone.

LW: There’s also a work style aspect as well. In my professional career, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a collegiate atmosphere and working as part of a team. As you progress in boards, you spend smaller amounts of time spread across a range of organisations so I don’t feel that same sense of connectedness.

GO: Will younger people be taken seriously on a board?

SO: I’m on boards and sub-committees where I am the youngest member. My training has been around being able to voice my opinions confidently and respectfully. Don’t underestimate the value and skills that you’re bringing to a board. Be really clear on your skills and experience, and how you will add value. And don’t forget that the board recruited you for a reason.

GO: Do you get paid to be on a board of directors?

AP: I think board members should have a personal financial commitment to a company.

LW: My board roles are half paid and half volunteer. The area where I do pushback – coming from a consultancy background that it’s assumed someone else is paying for your time. I do speak up and question it from a fairness point of view. They want your expertise but don’t realise you’re not getting compensated.

GO: NFPs typically do not offer remuneration or even expenses.

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