Why every aspiring director should consider a mentor

Wednesday, 01 April 2020

Lucinda Schmidt photo
Lucinda Schmidt

    The AICD Chair's Mentoring Program pairs aspiring directors with some of Australia's most influential business leaders. Here, they share the lessons that go both ways.

    Wai Tang FAICD describes her first few board meetings as a non-executive director (NED) as a disaster. She’d only recently finished a senior executive role with the Just Group and found the transition to a non-operational role challenging.

    “My biggest problem was where to draw the line,” says Tang, who was also running a corporate advisory startup. “I’d jump into problem-solving mode and people would look at me and think, ‘Which planet are you from?’”

    Fortunately, Tang had just been accepted as a mentee for the first cohort of the AICD Chair’s Mentoring Program, in 2010. Her mentor was Neil Chatfield FAICD, a highly experienced company director who had previously worked as an executive director and CFO of Toll Holdings.

    The pair spent a year meeting every two or three months over coffee or in Chatfield’s office at Seek.com in Melbourne, where he was a director and later chair. Tang spoke candidly to Chatfield about her struggles as a new NED with Speciality Fashion Group. He advised her not to micromanage or give instructions.

    “He talked about listening, digesting and giving your views gently, without confrontation,” recalls Tang. “It was about giving some guidance, but letting go of [executive] responsibility.” Her other challenge was dealing with the politics. “Pockets of directors were making decisions and I felt really awkward being the new kid on the block, trying to understand the business as fast as I could,” she says. Chatfield, who was also chair of Virgin Australia, advised her to disregard the noise around the board table and focus on discharging her duties fairly. “I do that to this day; it was really helpful.”

    Fast-forward nine years and Tang has three ASX-listed NED roles, with JB Hi-Fi, Vicinity Centres and Ovato (formerly PMP) and is highly regarded around the board table for her perspectives. “Neil helped me tremendously with how to delineate a NED role from a management role and how to provide insights without being abrasive. That’s not my nature, but I’d been so used to directing and instructing as an executive.”

    The Chair’s Mentoring Program is AICD’s flagship initiative, which aims to assist women on their directorship career journey and increase female representation on ASX 200 boards. Now about to welcome its sixth cohort (it does not run every year), the program attracts hundreds of applicants. So far, more than 300 emerging female directors have been paired with some of Australia’s most influential business leaders.

    Neil Chatfield has acted as a mentor for every AICD cohort. He says the top concern for mentees is usually the transition from an executive role. “Especially when you’ve had a pretty full-on executive role, there’s a fair bit of adjustment needed,” he says, noting that he juggled his CFO role at Toll with his NED role at the newly listed Seek for more than three years. Like Tang, he says he struggled early on. “I talked to a lot of people.”

    He chats to his mentees about interacting with management and advises them to be challenging, but supportive. “I’ve seen some really talented NEDs ask questions that give tremendous insight without being combative,” he says. One example is when a director asks management about customer relationships by simply saying, “Tell us more about this customer.”

    Chatfield, who chairs Aristocrat Leisure and Costa Group Holdings and is a director of Transurban Group, also urges mentees to be transparent, open and put people at ease, as well as do proper due diligence on an organisation before applying for a directorship. “The other thing I try to share is the ability to take lessons from one organisation to another, if they’re on more than one board,” he says.

    In Tang’s case, Chatfield believes their conversations helped her focus more on what she wanted to do, and broaden her perspective from her background in retail and fast-moving consumer goods. “I told her she understood supply chains, had tremendous operational experience and shouldn’t limit herself to retail. So many new directors define themselves by the sector they’ve been in.”

    As for what he learns from being a mentor, Chatfield says he enjoys embracing diverse views and backgrounds. “Wai was from a business-to-customer environment; I’d largely been business-to-business as an executive. I learned quite a bit from her about that.”

    The mentoring program is not just for brand-new directors. Tracy Dare GAICD had 20 years of non-executive experience before joining the 2017–18 program. She was working as a full-time executive for UnitingCare Queensland, but wanted advice on eventually transitioning to a full-time board career.

    “I’m focused on ASX-listed companies and ultimately chairing some of the top 100, once I’ve stopped being a full-time executive in six or seven years,” she says. “I saw the mentoring program as a great way to refine and test my career plan as to how and when to get there.” Dare was paired with Sally Pitkin FAICD, who chairs Super Retail Group, is a director of Link Group, Star Entertainment and the national AICD board. They knew each other from Brisbane business circles when Dare was a partner at KPMG and Pitkin a partner at Clayton Utz.

    At their first meeting, at a Brisbane riverside coffee shop, Dare shared her concerns with Pitkin about not being on an active, sizeable board after finishing her term as a director of CS Energy. “I was worried about leaving the gap too long, but I hadn’t actually thought about what sector, why, or the time frame,” recalls Dare.

    Pitkin advised Dare to focus instead on her executive career plan and how that aligned long-term with her director career. “That was a real wake-up call for me, to make sure my executive career was aligned,” says Dare. “It was smart and made me take a deep breath.” She suggested Dare take on one more executive role back in the full-profit corporate sector, before embarking on a full-time board career. “That was also really good advice — it was one of those pearls of wisdom, which no-one had told me. I’m really very happy in my current role, but I need to allow enough time to do another executive role.”

    "One of the most valuable things about Sally [Pitkin] is her directness.

    Tracy Dare GAICD

    Pitkin also advised Dare to direct her time and energy where it was most valuable. For example, Pitkin was considering joining the Brisbane Club, to network with other directors. “One of the most valuable things about Sally is her directness,” says Dare. “She said, ‘You’re already in Brisbane; I don’t think that’s the most important thing for you to do.’”

    Dare, now a director of CleanCo Queensland and Greater Springfield Community Club, and a member of the Property Council of Australia’s Retirement Living Council, says the key change for her when the program finished last September was the clarity and timing of her plan. Pitkin had also pushed her to think about her strengths and Dare’s plan now includes actively seeking board roles with large family businesses, using her KPMG experience.

    Pitkin, who has mentored formally and informally during her 20-year, 36-board non-executive director career, says an important part of the mentoring role is to provide structure to the meetings. She’d make sure a couple of themes were covered off each time and gave Dare some tasks for next time. “I gave her homework, in other words,” Pitkin notes. Part of the homework was to think about whether some of Dare’s other roles were worthwhile.

    "Tracy didn’t just sit there and hear wisdom on high from me. When you share your experiences and someone challenges that, you have to be prepared to move away from the accepted wisdom.

    Sally Pitkin FAICD

    “Tracy is a very experienced executive and already had NED experience, so she was very board-ready,” notes Pitkin. “But because she is a busy executive, she can get overloaded with other roles that take up her capacity and energy.”

    Like Chatfield, Pitkin says she learns from being a mentor. In Dare’s case, Pitkin says she was willing to question, challenge and explore deeply some of the issues. “She didn’t just sit there and hear wisdom on high from me. When you share your experiences and someone challenges that, you have to be prepared to move away from the accepted wisdom.”

    Her advice to other women seeking board appointments is to have a good understanding of where your skills and capabilities fit and take a medium- to long-term view. “The timing of board appointments can be serendipitous; you need to be patient.”

    Arlene Tansey says another important aspect of pitching for board appointments is to be very clear about your expertise, strengths and beliefs. Tansey, a director of Aristocrat Leisure, Healius (formerly Primary Health Care), Adelaide Brighton and Infrastructure NSW, was a mentor in the 2017–18 mentoring program, matched with Sally Evans FAICD, a former director of Opal Aged Care and chair of LifeCircle Australia.

    "Many very accomplished women find it very easy to advocate on behalf of a business and not so easy to advocate on behalf of themselves.

    Arlene Tansey FAICD

    “I tried to help Sally understand a framework for pursuing her goals,” says Tansey. “Many very accomplished women find it very easy to advocate on behalf of a business and not so easy to advocate on behalf of themselves.”

    She shared with Evans what she calls her “3 x 3” framework, which has three dot points under three headings — What do I bring (expertise)? What am I strong at (less common in others)? What do I stand for (beliefs)?

    Tansey did mock interviews with Evans before her interview for the Gateway board, making sure she had the 3 x 3 format in mind and giving her focused feedback.

    The 3 x 3 grew from Tansey’s early attempts to build a board career a decade ago. “People said, ‘Have coffees, network, ask advice’. The first two or three times, I came home and thought: ‘That’s an epic fail’. I couldn’t figure out how to get my message across. I find it almost impossible to advocate on behalf of myself.”

    One weekend, she sat down and worked out a framework that clarified her thinking and also helped draw questions from the other person on the issues Tansey wanted to cover.

    "These things catapaulted me from aspiring to be a professional company director to actually becoming one.

    Sally Evans FAICD

    Tansey also encouraged Evans to think carefully about who knew her — from her executive career in aged care, health and investment management — and who might vouch for her. “When I left banking to become a full-time director, I was surprised in a positive way about who suggested me for roles,” says Tansey. “For the first few years, almost all the board appointments were from someone who knew someone who knew me.”

    When a board vacancy came up for Healius last September, Tansey recommended Evans, who won out against a strong field. Evans was also appointed to the boards of Rest Super and Oceania Healthcare last year.

    Evans says she has shared the 3 x 3 with “dozens” of people. In all her interviews for board positions, being able to translate her beliefs to that particular board opportunity was a point of difference. “Without having put this in writing in the 3 x 3, I wouldn’t have thought to bring it into my interview preparation or discussion.”

    Evans also credits Tansey with introducing her to an executive recruiter, which led to the Rest Super appointment, and suggesting she record herself responding to potential interview questions. “It is the combination of these things, over five or six one-hour sessions and a number of phone calls, that catapulted me from aspiring to be a professional company director to actually becoming one.”

    Mentor & mentee

    Melanie Willis considers herself extremely fortunate to have been mentored by Trevor Rowe AO FAICD.

    Business mentors

    Trevor Rowe AO FAICD

    Chair Rothschild Australia

    When I was a young man, I was fortunate enough to have someone give me some sound advice and to mentor me in an informal capacity. It helped me think about how I might position myself, and the career I might embark on. It made a big difference to the opportunities I was able to pursue at the time. The experience also made me sensitive to helping young people — and helping women to gain leadership positions. I served on the board of the Australian Securities Exchange for nine years and became very aware we weren’t using all the resources available. I’d also reported to a woman in one of my early career positions and she was a wonderful leader.

    We need more women at board and senior executive levels and that’s why I got involved in mentoring.

    My first impression of Melanie was that she was a very bright person with great character. She was ambitious and highly qualified. I admired her passion and clear-eyed vision for what she wanted to achieve.

    "I don’t believe in a strict mentoring agenda as it depends on the objectives of the mentee. It’s important to build trust with your mentee, to listen carefully.

    Trevor Rowe AO FAICD

    We had robust dialogue about what she should do and how we could work together. We caught up every month for an hour or two and we’d talk about career opportunities, as well as what messages to get across in her CV and how to position herself. We would comb through the ASX 200 and I’d suggest where I thought she’d be a good match. If I knew the chair, I’d make contact and try to set up a meeting.

    I don’t believe in a strict mentoring agenda as it depends on the objectives of the mentee. It’s important to build trust with your mentee; to listen carefully, think about where that mentee sits within the broad [business] spectrum and then help to open doors for them.

    Being a mentor or a mentee is a valuable part of ongoing education. This is something I’m passionate about. I was a Chancellor of Bond University and helped create Careers Australia with an aim of trying to change the perception that people who had vocational training were inferior to those who had a tertiary education.

    The experience of mentoring makes you step back and think about the skills you have and how you can help others. It brings a huge sense of satisfaction. I’ve mentored about 10 women and like to keep in touch with them because they are interesting people and I’m interested in what they’re doing in their careers.

    Melanie is very successful and I’m so pleased and proud to have mentored her. Now she’s mentoring others, which is terrific. She’s an engaging and articulate person and these are important attributes. We built a strong relationship from the beginning. I regard her as a great friend.

    Melanie Willis

    Non-executive director PayPal Australia, Challenger Limited, Southern Cross Austereo, Chief Executive Women

    I’d been CEO of NRMA Investments for a number of years and had served on a number of boards. In 2011, I had overarching responsibility for NRMA’s $860m investment fund as well as tourism and leisure assets.

    I was considering transitioning to a full-time career as a non-executive director and was seeking advice on how to best approach this — how to position my skills and experience. I was delighted to be selected for the AICD Chair’s Mentoring Program and paired with ASX 100 chair Trevor Rowe. My first impression was how warm and welcoming he was. The first time we met, he shared his story of where he’d come from, how he’d built his career, his passions and commitment to community and what he’d learned. It was clear he was genuinely committed to the mentoring program, having mentored a number of women and assisted with increasing the representation of women on boards.

    Trevor was incredibly generous with his time. He reviewed my resume and gave me insights into how I could position and leverage my skills and expertise for suitable roles. He also opened doors for me through his recommendations to key directors and recruiters. Trevor’s introductions were invaluable. As a senior, high-profile chair, he assured me I was at the right stage in my career with relevant experience that would be attractive to boards. He would say, “Melanie, you’ve got all the skills and expertise, so you should go for it.”

    Trevor is a statesman in the true sense of the word. Beyond his directorship, he takes on issues that are important to him and agitates for change. He has a social conscience and a desire to give back broadly to the community. Giving back is a very important aspect of being a director, because it is a privilege to be in the position.

    Trevor’s community spirit was an inspiration to me. I’m now very committed to improving gender equity on ASX 200 Boards. I chair the Education Committee for the 30% Club and serve on the board of Chief Executive Women as NSW ACT chapter chair.

    The mentoring experience taught me the value of seeking feedback and questioning my own motivations. It also prompted me to become a mentor through AICD. One of my mentees has recently secured her first board position, which equally validates the merits of the program. I have learned as much from being a mentor as I did as a mentee.

    Trevor was my mentor in an official capacity for 12 months, but I know if I was agonising over something, I could call him and ask to meet for a coffee and advice. He’d say yes, because that’s who Trevor is.

    AICD Chair’s Mentoring Program

    The Chair’s Mentoring Program is AICD’s flagship diversity initiative. It is designed to introduce highly experienced and qualified emerging female directors to chairs and experienced directors from S&P/ASX 200 organisations. The program is designed to enhance the connections of chairs and senior directors.

    Mentees are selected by an Advisory Selection Committee, comprising representatives from the AICD, senior ASX 200 directors and other key stakeholders. Since its inception in 2010, more than 300 women have completed the program. Each year, up to 60 mentees are paired with chairs and senior directors.

    Applicants need to be current members of the AICD with at least three years non-executive board experience and at least eight years of senior executive or line management experience in a large organisation as a business owner or entrepreneur in private, public or NFP sectors.

    Applications for the 2019 intake are open from 1–29 May. The program will launch in August. For more information, visit aicd.com.au/diversity

    Previous mentees

    Those who have become successful non-executive directors over the past few years include:

    • Ilana Atlas MAICD, chair Coca-Cola Amatil, director ANZ and OneMarket.
    • Sally Pitkin FAICD, chair Super Retail Group, director Link Group and Star
    • Melinda Conrad FAICD, director Stockland, ASX, Caltex Australia.
    • Margie Seale FAICD, director Westpac, Telstra, Scentre Group, Australia Pacific.

    Serial mentors

    • Graham Bradley AM FAICD
    • David Crawford AO FAICD
    • David Gonski AC FAICDLife
    • Diane Grady AM FAICD
    • Jim Hazel FAICD
    • Kevin McCann FAICDLife
    • Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD
    • Diane Smith-Gander FAICD
    • Michael Smith FAICD
    • Ziggy Switkowski AO FAICD

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