3 ways to make the most of your CEO/chair relationship

Saturday, 01 December 2018


    Productive teamwork between a chair and CEO is essential for good governance and positive business outcomes. Here's how the Centre for Social Impact make it work in practice.

    It is quality face-to-face conversations that underpin a strong relationship between chair and chief executive officer, says Professor Peter Shergold FAICD. His opinion is informed by decades of experience with academia, public service and the corporate world. Among other things, that means personal meetings. “Email or even telephone communication doesn’t lend itself to that quality of conversation that is necessary,” he says.

    Shergold is talking about his role as chair of collaborative academic think tank the Centre for Social Impact (CSI), where his CEO is Professor Kristy Muir GAICD. He could just as easily be referring to Western Sydney University, where he is chancellor, or to Opal Aged Care, which he also chairs.

    “If you are going to talk about the big issues of the strategic direction, you need to do it face-to-face,” he says. “I find it much easier to introduce an element of moderating humour into discussions, to give vent sometimes to uncensored expression that is essential to the relationship between a bright young dynamo like Kristy and a grumpy old man like me. Humour plays a really important role in the relationship between a chair and a CEO. It is a way of getting down to a level where you can talk honestly to each other and start to understand the individual perspectives you each bring, not just different experience.”

    There is plenty to discuss. CSI, a joint venture between the University of NSW, University of Western Australia and Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, is a decade old, and in a time of renewal. Muir took the top job just over 18 months ago, while Shergold became chair in February, returning to the organisation he founded at the invitation of UNSW chancellor David Gonski AC FAICDLife, after 30 years in the public service. Shergold is a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

    Shergold had departed CSI in 2011 and describes his return as “a big call for Kristy and myself. There is always a danger in an ex-CEO reappearing as chair in terms of getting the relationship right”.

    Before agreeing to return, he gauged the centre’s direction under Muir, made easier because she had already sought him out.

    “I wanted to sit down with him, learn from him and talk to him about my vision for CSI,” Muir recalls. “I realised we have some really strong alignments in the way we think and what we want to help CSI achieve.”

    One intention behind CSI’s research into knotty problems such as homelessness and financial inclusion is to influence government policy to ameliorate or solve them.

    “Apart from research, one of our key strategic goals is to educate the social impact leaders of today and tomorrow,” Muir says. Another is to persuade corporates they should be contributing to the society in which they are generating a profit. “We want a better world and believe everyone has a role to play in achieving that,” she summarises. “Our focus is on being enablers through our research, education and catalysing activity.”

    To that end, the pair is clear about their complementary strengths. Shergold says he was the right person to kick things off, with $12.5 million from the federal government matched by initial investors including Macquarie Group Foundation, PwC, NAB and AMP Foundation. His combined academic and public service experience meant that “from the beginning, CSI saw itself as a think tank that would help stimulate public debate about the creation of social impact”.

    Muir’s “extraordinary vitality” was an incentive for Shergold’s return, along with her skills, temperament and knowledge, “to sustain and build the CSI vision because she, far more than me, brings academic credibility. She is an academic who looks outwards,” he says. Muir acknowledges she understands universities and what drives the people within them. “CSI is underpinned by our universities, so that is critical.” However, she notes, “Peter is much stronger in understanding politics and government, and some of the corporate and social business side of things.”

    Today, CSI has a secretariat of 64, an eight-member board and assets of $5m. Its CEO must fulfil the centre’s purpose while maintaining a stable business model, having pulled back its deficit budgets from $2m per year to $170,000 in Muir’s first year, and heading into the black for 2018. “If we can design education programs that meet people’s needs and develop social impact leaders at the same time as generating return margins, then that’s the sweet spot,” Muir says.

    Measuring the centre’s own impact is crucial. In 2017, 1000 students were enrolled in its undergraduate, postgraduate or professional development streams. CSI recently secured $5m of federal money to launch its Amplify Social Impact project, enabling not-for-profits (NFPs) and others to measure and improve their impact. It is also working with the First Nations Foundation to boost the financial resilience of Indigenous Australians. Maintaining close ties with corporate partners has been essential.

    “We’ve influenced policy in housing and disability, and have spent the past decade doing research that has influenced products and services offered to vulnerable people to improve financial inclusion and help build financial resilience,” Muir says.

    “I know we are succeeding if I find that governments are taking up the ideas that have been developed and promoted by CSI,” adds Shergold. “For example, the introduction of social impact bonds, first of all by NSW and now by other jurisdictions. That is something CSI directly contributed to and it may not have happened in the same way or with the same speed if we hadn’t been out there articulating it.”

    He says CSI can further develop its influence as a national body. “For Western democracies like Australia, these are challenging times in terms of participatory democracy and civil society. There is declining trust in politicians, diminishing respect for the authority of institutions like business and law, declining respect for expertise, and an emerging democratic populism. An organisation like CSI is even more important today.”

    Some of the most profound moments, where good governance happens, are the most uncomfortable. It’s about what needs to be unpacked and listened to.

    Kristy Muir GAICD

    Working partnership

    So, too, is the relationship between the chair and CEO. Among other qualities, Shergold and Muir value each other as good listeners. “It helps to make the relationship between Kristy and I work very well,” Shergold says. “She is always willing to listen to the views of others and sees value in that.”

    So far, there have been no disagreements and even when pushed, Muir can only vaguely recall a moment before CSI’s 10th anniversary event in August when she was briefing Shergold on her speech and he told her that he didn’t necessarily agree with her. “I said it was all to do with how you interpret the stats and then forgot to come back to it,” Muir recalls.

    However, neither would avoid conflict. “On the boards I sit on and with my own board, some of the most profound moments, where I feel good governance happens, are the most uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s about what needs to be unpacked and listened to.”

    Shergold’s take is also illuminating. “In a great board discussion, what happens isn’t just that individuals bring their different perspectives, but that during the course of debate there occurs a leap of collective imagination, where the diversity of views becomes something more than the sum of its parts,” he says. “That’s what I think you try to achieve, whether it’s between organisations, within the collective of the board or simply between two individuals.”

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