Behind the scenes of the 21st century board AICD Review

Saturday, 01 September 2001


    Ann-Maree Moodie, who wrote The Twenty First Century Board: Selection, Performance amp; Succession, published by the AICD this month, backgrounds the research – and surprisingly candid comments – behind this provocative book on Australian boards.

    In his office high above one of Australia's largest cities a director, who serves on a number of high-profile boards, looked out his window and lamented that he still hadn't "made it" onto an "A-team" board. It was clear from his remark that newcomers to what some describe as "a club" often find themselves in a competitive, subjective environment in which the path to a blue chip board is indeterminate. According to this director, there was an "A-team", a "B-team" and a "C-team" of boards; the ultimate prize being a blue chip board "because that means you've made it," he said. When I suggested, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, that he might sidle up to an "A-team" board chairman and express interest in the next vacancy, he was horrified. To do so, he explained, would be to break the unspoken code of board selection. "This is a different world," he said. "You have to wait to be asked." For this director to divulge his private ambitions for power and influence, (albeit off-the-record), was one of the most enlightening aspects of my 12 months of research.

    I had interviewed intensively for my previous two books, Small Poppies: Profiles of Australian Small Business and Local Heroes: A Celebration of Success and Leadership in Australia – in both cases conducting up to 40 interviews in a matter of a few months. Embarking on a large sample of off-the-record interviews was new, however, and although I expected participants to be more relaxed knowing that their comments would not be attributed, the degree of frankness was a revelation, and a refreshing one at that. It was also interesting to see how the boundaries surrounding each of these interviews gradually broadened. On completion of each chapter, the participants were sent the quotations selected from their interviews. "Put my name to it, if you wish," e-mailed back more than one director. "I stand by what I say". By the time the manuscript was complete, all those interviewed had agreed to be named in the acknowledgements. And, when the AICD asked me to seek permission from a small number to have an attributed quotation from their interview published on the back cover, all but one agreed.

    One may surmise that this gradual change occurred because the participants became increasingly comfortable with the project, either through discussions with me, their fellow directors, or with the AICD. I like to think that another factor was that the people interviewed for this book embraced the opportunity to offer their thoughts on the standard of board practice in Australia and in some cases, air grievances, vent their anger or even reveal long-held goals that they may not have otherwise been able to do. This does not imply, however, that these interviewees were in any way confessional. But within the relative safety of an off-the-record format, many of those who participated expressed opinions that would otherwise be considered, to use that wonderful euphemism, "career-limiting". This month, as the AICD launches the book, I will be interviewing on stage some of those who participated – the first time these directors will have gone public about issues they raised with me in private. It will be interesting to see whether the interviewees – and the chairmen and directors in the audience – will speak out about the issues which they determine limit, or prevent, world best-practice being achieved.

    Will they discuss why selection practices on many Australian boards are little more than "a chat over tea and scones", as some directors explained in the book? Will they be prepared to answer why boards demand performance objectives to be set for the senior management team, but not for the board? And will it be possible to get to the real reason why formal succession planning is rarely conducted on Australian boards? These confronting issues are only part of the story, however. Some boards have introduced creative ways to improve performance, such as establishing an informal "mentoring" arrangement between individual directors and members of the executive. Such practices should be published so that others might be inspired to look at new ways to do better. It is also my hope that The Twenty First Century Board, and the debate it will ignite, will encourage directors to speak more personally about their experiences. After all, the reasons why one would aspire to join an "A-team" board are not only to do with power and influence. An "A-team" board has an enviable reputation for quality. In this case, the expression "making it", when applied to joining such a board, takes on a whole other meaning.

    The book will be launched at luncheons on September 17 in Melbourne and on September 19 in Sydney. It is now available through AICD Publication Services (02) 8234 3333


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