Bronwyn Morris, president and chair of the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ), reflects that directors should never be afraid to look for answers.
I grew up in Toowoomba, then moved to Brisbane to go to university and qualify as a chartered accountant. It was over a decade ago, in 2007, that I joined the board of Spotless Group. In your first board meeting, you always do a lot more listening than speaking because you are on a steep learning curve.
The chair, Peter Smedley FAICD, was known to be a pretty tough character, although I found subsequently that he has a soft side. At [that first board] meeting, there was a presentation from management on a particular issue. I asked a question and Peter responded with: “why do you want to know that?” It caught me off guard. Did I overstep the mark with a question into management or was he just wanting to know what I was thinking? As it turned out, it was more to understand my thinking — I was new to the board and he was trying to understand where my thought process was coming from. On reflection, it was an important question. It’s always a good self-check to reflect and ask yourself: “is this a question I need to ask?”
It’s important to be aware that the questions you ask in the boardroom are relevant to the decision that the board, as a collective, has to make. There’s a lot to cover in board meetings and it’s worthwhile to be cognisant of this so you make the best use of the time. It is even more relevant now, with so much onus on non-executive directors to get a good feel for the culture of the organisation and the expectation for us to be doing a lot more. We have to be careful we don’t overstep the mark into management.
Basically, every board I’m on has the banking Royal Commission and Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) report into the Commonwealth Bank on its agenda — that and the Dreamworld tragedy with its important implications for work health and safety. It’s a good challenge coming from the APRA inquiry as to how well boards understand culture and that we are not gaining our views solely by exposure to executive management.
The RACQ boards are addressing how we as directors can get a good feel for culture within the group. One way is a “culture pulse check” at each meeting. We may have a presentation by team members other than the executives (without the latter being in the room) on a particular aspect such as member or employee feedback. Or a director might provide feedback on an activity he or she has undertaken. As a member-based organisation, the directors ensure we have various touchpoints. For example, in July I did a road trip through south-west Queensland to meet with contractors and staff. Meetings like this help us to understand the key issues.
Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work in London for a couple of years. Simply being exposed to a totally new environment was a huge thing. When I arrived, one of the first things I noticed was the educational background of some of the accountants. I was working with people who also had archaeology or psychology degrees and I was struck by how good they were. I’m a great believer in a diverse education.
As a director community we have to get better at explaining what we do. Because when things go wrong, the focus is on what we could have and would have done differently.
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