Carolyn Mitchell succeeded Alexandrea Cannon at Credit Union SA in 2017. They share their tips on how to become an effective chair.

    Credit Union SA is South Australia’s third-largest credit union with more than $1 billion in assets and 49,000 members. Employing more than 150 people, it was formed by the merger of Satisfac and PowerState credit unions in 2009. At its AGM in November 2017, Credit Union SA announced that Carolyn Mitchell would replace chair of 10 years Alexandrea Cannon. Members voted in support of Mitchell’s re-election at the 2018 AGM.

    Carolyn Mitchell FAICD

    The transition of the chair role has been a conversation over many years. I was chair of the governance committee and Alexandrea and I would touch base regularly — I hope that I’ve been a 2IC and a sounding board — and from time to time we discussed succession. There has been an ongoing process of renewal and refreshment of the board over a number of years. When Alexandrea felt she was ready, she asked if I was willing to take the role on. Of course, if she had been doing a rubbish job, that also would have been discussed, but it was never an issue!

    We come at things very differently. I have a background as a commercial lawyer and Alexandrea has one in HR. We have similarities in our “people first” attitude. We’ve developed a constructive and respectful working relationship and can tell each other if something didn’t go particularly well, or ask if perhaps we could have done something better.

    It’s an exciting time to become chair of Credit Union SA as there are new challenges with a continually evolving digital landscape and managing the varied expectations of members against prudent financial management and regulator expectations. Being chair changes your approach and you can be a little more detached. Alexandrea has now taken over the role of chair of governance — so our working relationship will continue. We discuss governance and strategic issues and she has been a fantastically good board member and support to me.

    I have been elected chair of a number of boards over many years. It’s a role I enjoy, but is largely made enjoyable by the quality of the team I work with — both on the board and the executive/management team within the organisation. The role gives me a privileged view of the organisation. One area that directors don’t always consider as important, or that surprises them, is the value of building good working relationships.

    The relationship between chair and CEO is vital and I try to spend a significant amount of time working with the CEO at a strategic level. Also vital is my relationship with fellow directors and I try to spend time with them to build good working relationships. We all work better with people we trust and like — but we don’t get to know someone just by working with them once a month around the board table.

    Good working relationships take time to build — they enable robust discussion and honest expression of views around the table. This is the best foundation a board can have when it needs to make difficult or controversial decisions.

    Alexandrea Cannon FAICD

    When I first thought about stepping up to the role, I asked a chair of a board what I would need to do. He advised doing the Company Directors Course to understand what was required, joining the audit committee to learn the intricacies of the organisation, and strengthening my financial skills because my background was HR. Over the years, I’ve chaired audit and risk committees. I had an MBA, but they don’t teach you a lot about boards. I completed the Company Directors Course 10 years ago. At that time I was on two boards and thought, “Ah, is that what we’re supposed to do?”

    I’m really interested in the dynamics around the table, in selecting and bringing out the best in people, the cultural impact of change and the leadership styles of the CEO.

    I was the first female director on PowerState Credit Union and when the time came to hire another director, Carolyn was among the interviewees. Then, when we merged with Satisfac, we were among four directors who transitioned from PowerState and I was selected to be chair. We’ve worked through a merger, a new CEO, constitutional change and board renewal. The constitutional change included reducing the number of member-elected directors and increasing the number of board-appointed directors to enable us to have appropriate skills on the board. When you’re in the trenches, you work out who you can rely on.

    We were talking succession planning for the future and I’d been on holidays — it’s amazing what a holiday can do for your perspective — and felt ready to move on. Carolyn was ready. Her strategic experience, commercial expertise and in-depth understanding of the mutual financial services industry was important to lead this next phase of growth. We’ve had a good understanding of why we’re doing that and the members have been very supportive.

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