Boards are trying different approaches to refresh their composition and skills to ensure they’re future-fit. We outline two approaches.
Board recruitment strategies have typically looked to director networks and tapping potential candidates on the shoulder. Yet when a longstanding director on the board of Gondwana Choirs retired at the end of 2021, the 30-year-old Australian not-for-profit (NFP) decided to try a radically different approach.
“We were down to six members, and several others, who’d served for a substantial period of time, had indicated that they might retire at some point in the next year or so,” says Kate Lidbetter, who has been chair of Gondwana Choirs since 2013 and is also the CEO of Symphony Services International. “We really needed some turnover — it was time to introduce fresh thinking and some new ideas.”
Rather than leaning on tried-and-tested networks, the organisation published criteria for desired skills and experience through an expression of interest (EOI) process. EOIs are just one of many alternative pathways to the boardroom. Other emerging routes include organisational advisory boards or councils, regular stakeholder briefings and structured programs for aspiring directors. These trends are leading towards more future- fit compositions, opening up boards to broader societal perspectives while diversifying their skills and digital capabilities.
The Gondwana Choirs EOI followed an earlier review that had highlighted a need for finance and accounting skills, due to the treasurer’s retirement. However, the organisation also sought to boost diversity. “We made it clear in the EOI that we were looking for diversity and inclusion,” says Lidbetter. “We felt that perhaps there were some gaps there that we could fill.”
For example, although Karen Mundine — a Bundjalung woman from northern NSW and CEO of Reconciliation Australia — is on the board, greater First Nations representation was sought, particularly given the Indigenous composition of some of the choirs, such as Cairns-based Marliya.
“Then we had a section called ‘other diversity consideration’, which basically meant, ‘Tell us what you’ve got,’” says Lidbetter, noting that Gondwana Choirs received inquiries from more than 20 people as a result of its EOI.
“We encouraged people to apply even if they felt that they were not necessarily ticking all the boxes because we had a record of their interest and their CV,” she says. “We saw a few applications from people who weren’t quite ready, but wanted to contribute in some way.”
Five people were interviewed formally, which resulted in three appointments to the board, two of whom were under 40. They were Alison Deitz MAICD, chief executive partner Australia of Norton Rose Fulbright, Hugh Dixson, a former Uber and Boston Consulting Group executive, now with road freight tech startup Ofload, and Mathisha Panagoda, a special counsel with law firm Colin Biggers and Paisley, who also teaches cello. Dixson and Panagoda, are former members of the choir.
Like any recruitment process, pursuing the EOI through to its conclusion was “pretty time-consuming”, acknowledges Lidbetter, but important to get the right fit.
Fellow Gondwana Choirs director Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine notes that the approach greatly expanded the talent pool beyond existing directors’ personal networks.
“EOIs can give you a sense of what’s out there that you haven’t already considered,” she says, adding that while sounding somewhat like a job application, an EOI was “a bit more discursive”.
“It’s an opportunity to hear someone reflect about what they bring, rather than to set very clear criteria against which they have to measure up,” she says.
Boyd-Caine, who is also CEO of Health Justice Australia, had initially used a similar process tactically at the NFP, which was established in 2016. Although the organisation didn’t recruit out of the EOI, she says it was “a really important signalling exercise in terms of being able to share publicly our approach to governance”.
“Expressions of interest are not a new concept, but the practice of using them as a way to think about board recruitment is certainly something I’m really interested in supporting,” says Boyd- Caine. “The clearest benefit is broadening your talent pool and opening up opportunities to people beyond your own network. It doesn’t mean the board loses control. I’ve been in a few conversations where boards have needed to feel comfortable and confident with the process and not feel like they were opening the floodgates.”
Another new route to the boardroom is observational learning.
First launched in Sydney in 2014, and having since become established in Melbourne in 2017 and Brisbane this year, the Observership Program pairs emerging leaders aged 25–40 with NFP boards for a 12-month period. During that time, the observers attend all board and committee meetings as non-voting members, learning about fundamental principles and functions of NFP boards, the roles of board members, fiscal processes and other governance priorities. Training opportunities designed to enhance their ethical and decision-making capabilities, as well as build boardroom-ready skills, are also offered alongside the observational component.
Observership Program CEO Cathy Robinson says the program brings younger and more diverse voices to boardrooms. “Participating boards are keen to engage with this, not just to provide opportunities for the development of the next generation of leaders, but also to ensure that the people who sit around their board tables reflect the diversity of their stakeholders and the broader community.”
Andrea Fernandes, business process manager at Youth Support and Advocacy Service, first learned about the Observership Program via LinkedIn while completing an MBA specialising in social impact. With little previous formal board experience, she had, in fact, seen the boardroom “as a space reserved exclusively for those with specific technical skills or extensive executive experience” — so was delighted to be matched with Infoxchange, a social enterprise she respected.
“My way of learning was by listening, asking questions when suitable and observing the dynamics,” says Fernandes.
Towards the end of the program, when it came time to select the subsequent year’s observer, she was asked to join the interview panel. “I felt fortunate to be entrusted to sit in this space and influence others’ pathways,” she says.
After responding to an EOI, she has recently been appointed to the board of the YWCA Hunter. Laura Parr MAICD, strategy and insights manager of financial services with Google, had applied for the program while she was transitioning from the superannuation industry to technology off the back of an MBA program at Monash Business School. “I’d identified a goal to secure a board position in the next three to five years, and I saw the program as a way to set me on this pathway,” says Parr.
Parr was paired with global environmental and conservation group the Nature Conservancy, and found that they were eager to have her contribute in a hands-on way, not just watch from the sidelines. “At the start, it was a lot of upskilling and gaining new knowledge and learning around conservation and environmentalism,” she says. “But over time, my involvement shifted and changed. As I got more comfortable with how the business works, I got more involved, not just putting my hand up for everything, but being clear and strategic on where I could deliver impact.”
When her term as an observer finished, Parr was then invited to join the Nature Conservancy advisory board.
Two years ago, Alvaro Rodas Fernandez MAICD, senior manager program design at Qantas, joined the Media Diversity Australia board after being an observer while it was still in its fledgling stages. “Proper governance structures, strategy and funding plans for the future needed to be established, and I was just lucky to be paired with an organisation that required the skills I had,” says Rodas Fernandez.
Robinson emphasises it’s not a requirement that NFPs subsequently provide a board role for their observers. “Lots of boards don’t have a spare seat at the table, although they’re very happy to host an observer,” she says.
A recent Creative Victoria four-year funding award recognises the Observership Program’s success in developing pipelines for younger directors from a range of backgrounds, adding to a suite of highly valued strategic partners that includes AICD, The Ethics Centre, JCA, PwC and the Asian Leadership Project.
The program is currently developing an alumni initiative to amplify its impact by providing ongoing networking, professional development, mentoring and reverse mentoring opportunities for former observers.
Applications for the 2023 program are open from 4–31 July 2022.
Making it work
Alumni from the Observership Program say that joining a board as an observer is as much about what you put into it as what you get out of it. Assess your motivation. Understand what you want to get out of the program and why, says Laura Parr MAICD. “This is about knowing your specific skill set — your unique value proposition. How can you differentiate yourself?”
Approach each board member early in the year to see if they have time to meet you one-on-one. “Having conversations in between the board meetings, with the board chair’s encouragement, was helpful,” says Andrea Fernandes.
Keep an open mind. Reflecting on your personal values and strengths can help you identify what it is you want to bring to the boardroom. “Joining a board might seem daunting, but everyone starts somewhere, and just applying for the program might be a good way to explore whether this is for you,” says Fernandes. Participate and contribute.
If your board is willing, get involved in a hands-on way. “Depending on the dynamics of the board, there might be opportunities to do more than shadow and listen,” says Parr. “Ask questions, get engaged, unpack the board meeting and minutes, speak to your board chair and dive into subcommittees or other kinds of projects outside the official meeting.”
Give something back.
Many people are drawn to NFPs because they want to contribute to positive change and a better world. “A small change always creates ripples,” says Alvaro Rodas Fernandez MAICD.
Value the opportunity.
Be generous about contributing to your cohort and the board table you’re sitting at. “You are getting an opportunity that is once in a lifetime,” says Rodas Fernandez. “Many of these boards have high-profile people whom you’ll get to engage with and learn from.”
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