What CEOs want from their boards

Sunday, 01 October 2023

Jessica Mudditt & Susan Muldowney

    Six CEOs of varying tenures tell us what they need from their boards to make this critical corporate governance relationship harmonious, communicative and strategic from the outset. 

    Kate Russell, CEO of Supply Nation

    Kate Russell was appointed CEO of non-profit supplier diversity organisation Supply Nation in July this year. An Awabakal woman from Lake Macquarie, she is a director of Diversity Council Australia and a former director of Interrelate and Yilabara Solutions, a subsidiary of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

    You’re just a couple of months into the job. How have you settled in? Any early surprises?

    I have a professional relationship with our co-chair, Glenn Johnston MAICD, because we were both on the board of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. He called me to ask if I’d consider applying for the role. I was on maternity leave at the time, so I was surprised by the call. I said, “I’m incredibly flattered, but how would you see this working when I’m postpartum with a very small baby?” He said that Supply Nation wants to be a modern organisation, that family is always going come first from a cultural perspective and they would help to make it work if I was offered the role. That spoke volumes about the board. I've had people turn me down for more junior jobs because I wanted to work part-time.

    As for how I’m settling in, I’ve been fortunate in that the board made an active decision to give me a soft landing. But now things are starting to heat up and to get real. We have so many opportunities, so there’s that wicked problem of deciding which one to focus on first.

    What qualities and skills was your board looking for in the selection process?

    Supply Nation is all about partnerships. We’re a for-purpose organisation, so I think they wanted someone who can bring people together and who is a natural collaborator. We're an Indigenous organisation, so cultural integrity was also a regular point of conversation throughout the interview process.

    The board was also quite upfront about the challenges and immediate needs of the organisation, and that was helpful for me in pitching my skills and experiences, knowing that a big focus for them was inside the organisation. If we don’t get the inside right, we can't possibly go outside and do all the great work that we need to do.

    You are an experienced board director, so you’re used to working with a CEO. What’s it like to be on the other side — a CEO working with a board?

    It’s been great and the directors are incredibly generous, but also very respectful and conscious that this is my first CEO gig. I’ve been able to call on some of their individual expertise for things like organisational design or some changes I’d like to make to our risk register. Ideally, the relationship between board and a CEO should be like a partnership, but it’s not always like that — and I’ve seen that [before] as a board director.

    As CEO, how do you plan to maintain an open and transparent line of communication with the board to ensure ongoing alignment and accountability throughout your tenure?

    We will co-design that sort of communication mechanism, but what’s been clear is that if they have a problem, they can pick up the phone and call me. I don’t want the board to be an invisible body that descends upon us once a year for an AGM. I want to feel as if we’re on the same team. I don't want to feel I can’t come to them with a problem for fear of reprimand or judgement. We’re definitely headed in that direction.

    What is one attribute you see in yourself that you think other people underestimate?

    I really like financial strategy. I’m much more comfortable and confident with numbers than my CV would perhaps indicate.

    In your view, what makes a good CEO and what makes a good chair?

    I’ve worked for some incredible leaders who have reinforced things like leading with kindness, emotional intelligence, dignity and trust. Chairs walk that fine line between active engagement and maintaining a strategic but non-operational role. Respecting those boundaries and proactively giving and receiving feedback on how we can work together are really important in a chair. I also think both CEOs and chairs need to be open to having frank and fearless conversations.

    Are there any insights you’ve gained during your experience of CEO succession that would be helpful for aspiring candidates or boards?

    The board was very mindful of creating a relaxed environment during our discussions. It was very much like having a yarn, so there was no other option than to be myself. I think that worked for them because they got to see the real me. And it helped me because I got to show them who I am. There is usually a power balance in recruitment situations, but it's also a two-way interview. So, as lame as it may sound, just be yourself.

    Mark Fitzgibbon FAICD, CEO of NIB

    Mark Fitzgibbon FAICD was formerly CEO of both the national and NSW peak industry bodies for licensed clubs and held several general manager positions in local government. He was appointed CEO of NIB in 2002.

    What qualities and skills was your board looking for in your selection process?

    The board was looking for fundamental change and a fresh approach. I had a reputation for bringing about transformational change. I like to think I’ve delivered on that goal.

    What are your thoughts on succession plans?

    I’m still as excited and energetic as I was when I began this role. I joke that I’ll never leave, but everybody has an expiry date. I have a vested interest in ensuring my succession goes well. I don’t want somebody else to stuff everything up. I’m supportive of a sophisticated, well thought-out approach to succession. Part of me thinks unless somebody within the business replaces me, I’ve failed in some respect. An outsider with fresh eyes may give the company a complete change of direction, as I did. Bringing in an outsider signals the board [thinks] the company is not performing well. It motivates me to develop internal talent.

    What makes a good CEO?

    To be an effective leader, you need to have a lot of self-belief and confidence about what you’re doing. The moment you start to take yourself too seriously, or to treat people as though they’re subordinates of your grand vision and plans, you’ve lost your way.

    What makes a good chair?

    First and foremost, sound judgement. You listen to all the arguments, much like a judge in court, except relying on consensus. You are conscious of your own biases and assumptions. I have a good relationship with the chair and board and I like to think if ever there was a problem, it would surface quickly because of the quality of our relationships.

    What is one attribute you see in yourself that other people may underestimate?

    My ability to go deep when I need to. You can’t afford to get too involved in any particular issue. The CEO is the maestro, and you can’t be the maestro if you’re playing the violin. You need to have a good networking knowledge of the orchestra. Otherwise, the music doesn’t sound right.

    Lisa Claes MAICD, CEO of Corelogic International

    Formerly an executive director and general counsel for Dutch banker ING, Lisa Claes MAICD joined CoreLogic International as CEO in 2016. She is also a director of Loreto Kirribilli.

    What qualities and skills was your board looking for in your selection process?

    I’m a great believer in the concept of seasons — both in business and life. Different sets of skills are required for distinct periods of time. There is a time for cautious leaders, for mavericks and for entrepreneurs. Nothing lasts forever.

    I came in to lead the business from being what I’d describe as a “high-potential adolescent” into an adult. When you’re in adolescence, it’s all about growth. When you’re an adult, it’s more around creating value that lasts. It’s not to say that previous phases of the business were absent of value creation — I stand on the shoulders of giants and have enormous respect for my predecessors — but lifecycles and leaders change.

    My focus has been on setting up the business to be sustainably profitable and value-creating for our customers, regardless of market cycles or the prevailing competitive landscape. That requires a different skillset to the previous seasons.

    Through a focus on desensitising the business away from the impact of market cyclicality, without straying too far from the core, we have pioneered new and innovative solutions, grown into and acquired new segments and doubled down on productivity. That’s about ensuring work gets done in the most efficient and effective way by achieving the optimum resource profile across onshore, automation, robotics and offshoring without compromising on the customer experience.

    The CoreLogic global group was listed until a couple of years ago, and now it is owned by an American private equity firm. I report to the global CEO in the US and, from time to time, to the private equity board sponsors, usually about potential investments.

    How do you maintain an open and transparent line of communication with the heads of business to ensure ongoing alignment and accountability throughout your tenure?

    When interacting with the global CEO, I optimise my time during one-on-one meetings by providing in advance a written business overview that covers financial performance, customer wins, market insights, people and culture matters. It is a detailed synopsis of the business at the current point in time. The global CEO and I rarely talk about the items I’ve covered in the report, it’s taken as read. This leaves time to talk about strategic matters and needle movers. The global CEO may discuss opportunities or solutions that are working in another global market that may have some resonance in my international regions across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. This “creating space” discipline is adopted by all my executive direct reports.

    What makes a good CEO?

    There are certain attributes that differentiate a good CEO from an ordinary one. This includes the ability to formulate a vision and a strategy. A relentless focus on customers is absolutely key. You also need to be decisive and adaptable, particularly as the geopolitical and economic environments are changing rapidly, as is the market structure. You must be attuned to these shifts so that the business can quickly pivot its strategy.

    What is one attribute you see in yourself that you think other people may underestimate?

    I actively seek out contradictory points of view in order to challenge my perspective. When you’ve been privileged to hold a senior role for a long time, you can get lots of positive reinforcement around the way you’re doing things. There’s a danger of drinking your own Kool Aid. I’ll bring someone in who I anticipate will have a completely different view to mine and will challenge my approach. Some could see that as quite confrontational, but I actually enjoy the process. It’s about getting lots of healthy input to help shape my thought process.

    James Thornton MAICD, CEO of Intrepid Travel

    James Thornton MAICD began his career in asset management before joining Intrepid Travel’s UK office as sales and marketing coordinator in 2005. Prior to being appointed CEO in 2017, his roles included EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) regional manager, general manager of global sales and managing director of Intrepid Group.

    What first attracted you to the company and how did you rise through the ranks?

    I’d been working in client asset management in London and the prospect of spending the next 40 years of my life making rich people richer didn’t appeal. Intrepid was a growing entrepreneurial company aligned to my values and I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top. I’m the first non-founding CEO. I’d worked closely with co-founder and CEO [now chair] Darrell Wade when I was managing director and group MD.

    CEO selection hinges on sector, strategic needs and fit — and the phase in organisational life cycle. What qualities and skills was your board looking for in your selection process?

    At the time I was appointed, Intrepid didn't have a structured board — it was made up of the two co- founders and myself until 2018. But the founders had a desire for the first non-founding CEO to come from within the business, because it meant they would have a firsthand understanding of its complexity, both in terms of our business model and the fact that it operates in 120 countries.

    They also wanted someone with youth on their side, so that he or she would be able to make a significant impact over an enduring period. The founders are not into having short-term CEOs. The company had stagnated during a joint venture with a European leisure company, so my agenda was very much about getting the growth agenda back on track.

    The business has grown from being a $30m business when I joined to the $560m business that it is today. This year we’re forecast to do about $560m of group revenue and to raise $2m for our Intrepid Foundation.

    Intrepid is also a certified travel B-Corp, which reflects our commitment to sustainable travel. In June, the company was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential Companies, which is pretty incredible for a home-grown Australian company.

    How do you maintain an open and transparent line of communication with the board to ensure ongoing alignment and accountability throughout your tenure?

    I have a somewhat unique relationship with our board because the two co-founders are the heartbeat, values, culture and history of the company. I have a huge amount of respect for both of them, but I’m the CEO and I’m accountable for delivering the results.

    What makes a good CEO?

    A good CEO is willing to listen as much as they talk. CEOs often forget the premise of “two ears and one mouth”. I spent many years on the sales side of the company and as a salesperson, the natural inclination is to talk. But something I learned about selling was that you need to balance ego with empathy.

    I’m a big believer in continuous learning and development. Sometimes, becoming a CEO is seen as the peak of career ambition and often people have worked 20 or 30 years to get there. They naively presume that they’re the complete package and there’s nothing more to learn. But by always trying to improve and challenge yourself, you help the business to improve. I read widely and I’m a member of a peer group called YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization].

    What is one attribute you see in yourself that you think other people may underestimate?

    A trait that is perhaps underestimated in me is something I call my “casual intensity”. I’m quite easygoing. I love to have fun. But at the same time, I’m also incredibly intense and competitive. I want the company to be better and I want the business to grow.

    Fergus Lineham, CEO of Carriageworks

    Fergus Linehan joined Sydney’s contemporary arts hub Carriageworks as CEO in June this year. A veteran of arts administration, he has led the Edinburgh International Festival, Sydney Festival, Vivid Live at the Sydney Opera House and the Dublin Theatre Festival.

    You created Carriageworks’ inaugural performance in 2007, when you led the Sydney Festival. What attracted you back?

    I moved back to Sydney from Edinburgh with my wife and children in September 2022. I wasn’t looking to jump into a leadership role, because I’d been in them for so long, but the Carriageworks role was unlike anything I’d done before. It was in an area that was rapidly changing and it hadn’t completely defined itself.

    What was the board looking for in your selection process?

    Carriageworks is still evolving in terms of its identity, so there’s still a lot of opportunity to define what it’s going to be. The board was looking for someone who was open to that, because some people need the boundaries within which to work. I’ve worked across multiple art forms and I think they were looking for someone with a fairly broad definition of culture.

    How were key areas of focus and strategic objectives agreed upon during your discussions with the board? Were there specific challenges?

    Because of COVID-19, there had been a bit of a lull in terms of strategy, so there was a lot of hunger to get a strategy in place — perhaps a little quicker than I would have chosen. I obviously outlined my thoughts on strategy during the interview process, and a lot of it had been agreed.

    As CEO, how do you plan to maintain an open and transparent line of communication with the board to ensure ongoing alignment and accountability throughout your tenure?

    It’s important to have a good definition around governance issues and executive issues. There needs to be good communication, but at the same time, it’s not about bombarding them with executive matters — and not pushing executive decisions into a board setting, which creates a kind of a culpability that is inappropriate and also pushes the conversation away from what should be broadly strategic and good governance over risk issues.

    In your view, what makes a good CEO and what makes a good chair?

    People are desperate for clarity around future direction. It’s at times a little contradictory because people are both craving a flat hierarchy and they want to be told exactly where we're going. Finding that balance is really important.

    The other big one for CEOs, which has changed enormously in the past few years, is being really open in the communication, including pulling back the curtain and letting people see how the decisions are made, even if there’s doubt and indecision at times — and even mistakes.

    With a chair, it’s about being a support and, at times, even a friend to the CEO, but also keeping a distance, to be able to ask the hard questions and to sometimes keep the CEO’s feet to the fire on the broad strategic areas, because that can drift a little when you’re in the weeds doing the day-to-day work.

    What is one attribute you see in yourself that you think other people underestimate?

    A lot of people in the arts say they hate spreadsheets, but I love them. I’m fascinated with the financial mechanics of how the arts works and what can be released through that.

    What insights have you gained from the succession experience that would be helpful for aspiring candidates or boards?

    For candidates, show a deep knowledge of the company and glean as much information from the recruiter as you can. In terms of succession generally, it’s important for board members to make sure the CEO knows they are responsible for setting up the entire process. It gets a little bit confused at times between board and executive. To be really successful, the CEO needs to take responsibility to make sure that process is done in a timely fashion, rather than when they’re halfway out the door.

    Navleen Prasad GAICD, CEO of Australian Investment Council

    Navleen Prasad GAICD joined the Australian Investment Council as CEO in November 2022 after two decades in executive roles at Macquarie Group. She is also on the Sydney Youth Orchestras board.

    You’ve spent most of your career in institutional financial services and asset management. Did a CEO role feel like a logical next step?

    Private capital felt familiar, given my professional background, but it was sufficiently different in that it offered some of the new challenges I was looking for in the next stage of my executive career. Having ultimate P&L ownership, having responsibility for an entire team and helping them all pull together in the same direction to achieve a common goal — that was very appealing. I also wanted to help support an industry that empowers Australian businesses, ideas and communities. And with so many areas of unmet community need, we need all forms of capital to be part of the solution.

    A friend of mine mentioned the role to me and I’d never sought out a CEO role before. It was put to me in the context of, “Do you know anyone?” I thought to myself, well, why not? I put my hat in the ring and went through a rigorous selection process that included spending a lot of time with the board.

    What qualities and skills was the board looking for in your selection process?

    I can’t speak for the board, but the career I’d had in professional and financial services was important to what I offered to them. Having a high conviction for private capital was also valuable, because you have to have that strong belief if you are going to advocate for an industry. I’d also spent a lot of my career focused on internal and external stakeholders, and that’s an important part of leading a member- based organisation.

    As CEO, how do you plan to maintain that open and transparent line of communication with the board to ensure you’ve got that ongoing alignment and accountability throughout your tenure?

    We have instituted structures, so there are all the obvious things, like regular meetings with the chair. Our board advisory committees must be chaired by a board member so there is an instituted line of sight and alignment with the board. Our treasurer is a member of the board, so that provides transparency on financial management.

    Our chair [Alicia Gregory] has also created this terrific culture of psychological safety and that really helps with transparency.

    How was that culture created?

    We have spent a lot of time together, both during the recruitment process and in the context of business as usual, and I think you build that trust over time. Also, I know she’s ultimately there to support me, but also to challenge me, and she does that in a way that is very constructive. It’s probably more probing rather than challenging, and I welcome that. The intention is always about achieving the best possible solution.

    In your view, what makes a good CEO and what makes a good chair?

    A good CEO never loses sight of the purpose of the organisation. They are informed by their stakeholders, they make decisions and own the decisions, and they spend a good proportion of their time on people and culture.

    A good chair communicates well and that can empower the CEO and support them, but also challenge them, as appropriate. They can partner with a CEO when needed. In my role, for example, my chair and I partner on some strategically significant initiatives and that helps demonstrate to members that it has the highest level of support.

    What is one attribute you see in yourself that you think other people underestimate?

    I’m more tenacious than people might think. It helps me to be creative when I’m problem-solving and it helps me to overcome setbacks, which are an inevitable part of professional life, and to keep focused on the big picture.

    Are there any insights you’ve gained from the succession process that would be helpful for aspiring candidates or boards?

    Invest as much time with the CEO as possible, not just during the recruitment process, but also during the settling-in period. I spent a lot of time with the board in the very early days of my tenure and I felt incredibly supported.

    For candidates, you may not get asked about it in your interviews, but I think it’s really important to have a 100-day plan in your mind. It’s never going to be exactly as you envisage it, because once you get your feet under the desk, there will be tweaks that you have to make. But to hit the ground running, you have to have a vision as to what you want to do in your first 100 days, because that time does go by incredibly quickly.

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Follow the Leader’ in the October 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.

    Latest news

    This is of of your complimentary pieces of content

    This is exclusive content.

    You have reached your limit for guest contents. The content you are trying to access is exclusive for AICD members. Please become a member for unlimited access.