Taking the leap from executive to director

Wednesday, 09 March 2016


    What skills and behaviours should you bring to the board table as you transition from executive to director? What should you look for in your first board role? Alison Gaines FAICD and Phil Thick FAICD share their experiences

    For most successful directors, the journey towards directorship involves spending a significant portion of their career as an executive within an organisation. Some individuals may indeed hold both roles at one time – functioning as an executive on one day, and a director the next. However, making the transition isn’t always straightforward.

    We spoke with Alison Gaines FAICD, global practice leader, board consulting, Gerard Daniels, and Phil Thick FAICD, managing director and CEO, New Standard Energy, about what you should bring with you to the boardroom, and what you should leave behind.

    AICD: What is the most important lesson you have learnt in making the transition from executive to director?

    Alison Gaines (AG): I am both an executive and a non-executive director. I transition between the roles on a weekly basis as I move between a board meeting and my executive leadership role. The trick is to know the difference between the two roles, and particularly to ensure I don’t attempt to micro-manage at the board table. I’ve been sitting on boards for 25 years and I can pick up the look of panic in the CEO’s eyes when he or she believes the board is heading into the “operational weeds”.

    ‘Letting go’ can be the toughest challenge after a long executive career.

    Phil Thick FAICD

    Phil Thick (PT): Your role is no longer operational. Let the CEO and their executive team run the company. Focus on direction, strategy and sound governance and do not interfere in the day-to-day business unless your advice is sought. “Letting go” can be the toughest challenge after a long executive career.

    AICD: Did mentoring help you as you moved into your first board roles?

    AG: Mentors have been very important, largely for their faith in nominating and supporting me for board roles and committee and chair roles. My first big break came in the 1990s when I was a NED on the national board of the Institute of Public Administration Australia. The chair vacancy arose very suddenly. The person who I expected and hoped would take the chair took me aside and asked me to take the role and listed the ways he would support me in the role. It was a great gift he gave me. Later, when I was nominated to the very responsible role of deputy chancellor of the Murdoch University Senate, people who had been quiet supporters emerged as active mentors who wanted to ensure my success in the role. I learnt that mentorship isn’t a once-off event, but rather a style of interaction with people I trust and admire.

    AICD: What skills and behaviours should you bring with you to the boardroom, and what do you leave behind?

    PT: Asking the right questions is the most important skill, which needs you to be very well briefed and prepared. Listening to others and trying not to grandstand is also important. More is not better. From my experience those who ask the really on point, well considered questions less frequently get respect and attention.

    AG: I’m a great believer in the unique “boardroom competence”. It’s a unique role, of being your own person and bringing your own consideration of the issues to the table, while also belonging to a team of equals and being a partner (sometimes a sceptical partner) with management. It takes time to learn about the enterprise and the unique culture of the board. And it takes time to learn how to frame questions and contribute effectively to discussion and debate.

    I had to leave behind the idea I could rely on my narrow expertise. This meant I worked really hard to understand all my director duties and broaden my skills and understanding of the enterprise.

    AICD: What do you look for in your first board position, and how do you assess the fit?

    AG: My list of criteria is:

    • Do I like the organisation, do my skills align with its core purpose and can I potentially add value?
    • Is it in good financial shape and has a strong brand in its market?
    • Does it have a competent chair, CEO and board?
    • Is the NED workload clear and can I meet the obligation?
    • Do I have any conflicts of interest?
    • Are there any risks for me reputationally or legally?

    PT: Look for something that fits well with your experience, skill set and interest. It is easy to broaden in later roles but you want to nail your first one. Don’t just jump at anything just to get the first role. Do your due diligence thoroughly.


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