Graeme Innes AM GAICD: Diversity in the boardroom

Friday, 01 September 2023

As told to Bennett Mason

    In this edited extract from the Boardroom Conversations podcast, National Disability Insurance Agency board member and Chancellor of Central Queensland University Graeme Innes AM GAICD discusses why NFPs should pay their directors and the chair’s role in a successful merger. 

    Q: How do you think we can address the underrepresentation of Australians with a disability in boardrooms and at the senior executive level?

    A: We address it by appointing more people with disabilities on boards. We address it by doing what the AICD has recently been doing, supporting people with disabilities, with the availability of government funding for this, to complete the AICD course and train as directors. The big problem that people with disabilities face, whether it's getting around the boardroom table or in broader areas of life, is the attitude barrier... the innate assumption among the vast majority of community members that people with disabilities will not be able to effectively carry out the roles we're putting ourselves forward for. Most of those assumptions about people with disabilities are limiting, and most of them are also wrong. But they continue to be made. As a person with a disability, I run into that every day of my life, from the time I walk out my front door. If we can challenge that barrier by having more and more people with disabilities delivering at the board table, then we can remove a lot of the issues.

    I was speaking at a conference last week, a conference of disability service providers, where I said, “If you're not employing at least 15 per cent of people with disabilities in your organisations — because that's the percentage of people with disabilities of working age in the population — then you're not living your values. And you have to face up to that fact.” If you're still caring for people with disabilities, but you're not empowering people with disabilities, then you're not really living the values that should be driving your organisation.

    Q: The issue about board pay and boards at some organisations not being compensated, is part of a broader issue. Does it also apply not just to Australians with disabilities, but also to other members of society who are underrepresented?

    A: Absolutely. If you're a for-purpose board and you're not paying your board members, then you're probably excluding the cohort of your purpose. Whether it is people with disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or people who might be socially or economically disadvantaged. If you're a housing board, for instance, running some sort of housing cooperative and you're not paying your board members, then probably the cohort of people who are trying to get into housing are not going to be, in the main, putting their hands up for your board. Because they're trying to make their way in the community, and they don't have the time or capacity for a voluntary role. So, indirectly, you're reinforcing privilege. If you're serious about broadening the cohort of your board, you have to face that fact.

    Q: Years ago, you led the merger of several state-based organisations to become Vision Australia. How challenging was it to bring those different groups together and do you have any advice for organisations going through mergers?

    A: When I was talking about the difficulty of being on a for-purpose or not-for-profit board, the general thinking among company directors is probably that a for-profit board, an ASX board, is more complex than a not-for-profit board. I actually think the complete opposite is the case — and mergers are a really good example of this. If you're merging two for-profit companies, the bottom line is, if you put enough money on the table, the merger will take place — if there’s value, if the merger brings a good value proposition.

    In the for-purpose sector, it's quite different because you're working with people who are on a journey to deliver in a particular area. You know that is the mission or purpose of the organisation. If you don't sell the value of merging organisations to all of those groups of people, then the merger won't happen. It's nothing to do with money. The dollars are not the key focus.

    In any merger in the for-purpose sector, you have to test all the time, all the way through that sort of merger, the direction that the various organisations are going and whether that is a shared direction, whether there are shared values. Because if you don't have those shared values, then the merger either won't take place or, if it does take place, there will be at least one sector of the merged organisation that's pretty unhappy. That's a much more complex task on a board of a for-purpose organisation than it is on the board of a for-profit organisation.

    So, my advice around mergers is that you have to be constantly aware of that. You have to be constantly talking to the group of people that you're merging with. Probably not just the board directors, but the broader stakeholders, to ensure that your values fit and your mission is either the same or similar, or enough to make the merger a value proposition. That's a continuing conversation you have to have. You need to work really hard to mould the cultures of the various organisations to draw out the best of those cultures and build them into a new culture. That is ongoing work you have to do before, during and after the merger, if you are in a leadership role in the organisation.

    Listen to the full interview on the Boardroom Conversations podcast here

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Boardroom Conversations’ in the September 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.

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