With 40 years’ of board experience, Suzanne Schultz’s advice is invaluable for those aspiring to join a company or not-for-profit board. Suzanne is a psychologist who has spent much of her vast and varied career in the education and health sectors.
She has been a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) for some 15 years and, until recently, was the ACT Manager for the AICD. In her current role at Directors Australia, Suzanne is responsible for providing advice and guidance to boards, running workshops to improve governance and board performance reviews. One example Suzanne gave was “Governance 101”, to ensure boards, particularly those with new directors, understand their responsibilities.
Governance more important than ever
The pandemic has put risk, uncertainty, crisis, opportunities and innovation at the forefront of directors’ minds. Suzanne says, “It has put huge pressure on boards to govern well and make good decisions without having all of the information in front of them”.
This follows the string of Royal Commissions that put the spotlight on the role of boards, their responsibilities, and where they should focus their attention.
Increasingly, boards are expected to be across an organisation’s culture, along with digitisation, effective and appropriate use of data, and cyber risk. For very good directors, this ever-expanding range of responsibilities comes down to being very clear about what matters and what information they need to have in a digestible format.
“Good boards have become more creative and more curious about how they can get the information they need to make the best possible decisions, and so meet their responsibilities from a governance perspective,” says Suzanne.
That does not mean seeking voluminous amounts of information. As Suzanne says, “If the board needs to know, the executive should know, but the board views it through a slightly different lens.”
She adds there’s also an art to being a director: trusting gut instinct or integrity to determine where they should challenge and ask what else they need to know.
Only team players need apply
Aspiring board members must start by being very good at their ‘day job’, says Suzanne. “Skills, experience and depth of knowledge in your particular profession or industry is the single most important thing.”
Next is being an effective team player working towards a common goal. Suzanne explains that this requires good communication and listening skills, someone who can disagree without being disagreeable, and who can challenge so that the team arrives at the best decision. “Some of the very best operators are those who when challenged or when things get difficult, instead of getting defensive, they get curious,” says Suzanne.
This is where the significant movement around board diversity comes into play. “The more diverse the board is from every perspective – gender, industry, socio-economic status, cognitive style, cultural background – the more effective it will be,” says Suzanne. “That is because you will be looking wider, and from different perspectives, to make crucial decisions.”
Getting on board
The next step is learning about governance to get relevant qualifications and experience. Suzanne suggests taking a role on a community-based board as a good starting point. Even primary school and tennis association boards provide the opportunity to learn from experienced board members about what exactly boards are and how they work.
Mentoring is another avenue. In the not-for-profit sector, many people have volunteered to join a board as a way of giving back to the community. After 20 or 30 years though, they are keen to mentor the next generation of board members, according to Suzanne. Mentoring programs also exist, including one run by the Canberra Business Chamber and the AICD’s Chairs Mentoring program.
As part of the movement towards board diversity and shift away from the same network of directors sitting on multiple boards, so-called over-boarding, specialist recruitment firms have emerged as an alternative route to board seats. Directors Australia provides a similar service to lift the capabilities of boards.
People can also register their interest with Directors Australia, AICD and Women on Boards, and state governments keep a register to try to match people to government board positions.
Suzanne’s tips include monitoring where those opportunities may be advertised, plus examining the skill matrix that good boards publish on their website or annual report to identify any gaps that align with what you can contribute.
Suzanne stresses the importance of having a good reputation within your network and among your peers because it acts as an informal referee check. “Paying attention to your own network is probably the single most important thing to prepare yourself when you are ready to take on a board role.”
Suzanne says that if you are applying for a board role, resumes should focus on directorship responsibilities, defining your unique value, and be crystal clear about what you can contribute to the board and the organisation’s purpose.
This leads to what determines success or failure – a team mindset. “You don’t get to make decisions as an individual. You must be able to work as a team to make the best possible decisions for the organisation,” says Suzanne. “That is the biggest challenge for highly capable executives that transition to a board role. They are one voice among many.”
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