A look at how AICD’s Mastering the Boardroom program can provide that extra polish to the director’s role.
The art of directorship
When directors undertake the Mastering the Boardroom program they step inside a three-day boardroom simulation confronting a series of rapid change and crises. It is an experience Michael Smith FAICD, managing director of the Marketing Centre, describes as “absorbing, tiring, stimulating and exhilarating”.
“I guess the analogy I had in my mind was the kind of flight simulator into which they put airline pilots and subject them to multiple engine failures and fires. There is a constant stream of challenges coming towards you, forcing you to adapt and handle these.”
The most advanced of all programs offered by AICD, Mastering the Boardroom is run in a residential format, with professional development sessions alongside the simulation. The program is recommended for experienced directors and those who have completed the Company Directors Course (CDC).
Andrew Donovan FAICD, a director of Thoughtpost Governance, is a facilitator of the program. “The Mastering the Boardroom program is like the art of directorship, as opposed to the science. While the CDC provides a healthy, solid, scientific background, this course allows you to develop your artistry. It helps you develop a brand in the directorship marketplace by fine-tuning those technical skills and exploring more intuitive group dynamics and some larger strategic issues.”
It is a vigorous program – participants frequently work 12 hour days – but Donovan says this intensity has a function. “The intensity is there in part to create the learning. It creates a simulated pressured environment. Because you can’t teach some of these skills, you actually have to experience them. This intensity creates the capacity for breakthrough learning.”
Dianne Hill FAICD, director of Sector Research, says being bombarded with a series of crises gave her valuable lessons.
“The major insights were around the board structure and dynamics of the board, how important it is to have a well-planned agenda and for the board to keep focused on the most significant issues, not get distracted or spend disproportionate time on less significant issues.”
Like Hill, Angela Riley FAICD, a consultant and independent director, says: “The ability of our facilitators and the design of the program allowed us to be ‘thrown into the deep end’ immediately. This led to an almost instant sense of reality and the creation of an effective team.”
Colin Smith FAICD, a director of Strategic Insurance & Risk Solutions and RailCorp NSW, says the program gave him a number of strong, personal insights.
“If you have good minds around the table you can inspire each other to different thought processes. What something means to me may have a completely different meaning to someone else because of their skill set. But if each of you are contributing, you are likely to inspire one another, which is all for the good of the company. I found that interchange on this program really great.”
Brian Williamson FAICD, a director of Workplace Law and the Spastic Centre, says he had learning breakthroughs.
“I learnt to focus on one of the other critical competencies I have as a lawyer, which is to ask good questions. That was a real breakthrough from my point of view… I have always been fairly active and highly interventionist, and it was interesting to sit back a bit and let some of the others participate, and perhaps reduce my insertions, and make them more critical… Just coming back to broad-spectrum questioning also opened out the conversation a lot more.”
Despite the challenges of the program, a frequent comment from participants is that it is fun. “Having fun ended up being a mainstay of our group, even during some of the more stressful parts of the course,” observes Riley.
All facilitators on the program are highly experienced, and participants have the opportunity to request personal feedback and coaching. “I found the very high-level access to significant people useful, and their insights and perspectives were exceedingly valuable and very thought-provoking. At one stage I asked for a private feedback session with one of the facilitators and I got some really good feedback, which in many respects changed some of my operating behaviours,” says Williamson.
Donovan says peer learning is also fundamental to the program. “One of the big learnings often comes from group dynamics. Participants get feedback directly from their peers about how they operate in a board environment. It isn’t a fluffy ‘fill in a questionnaire’ approach. It’s much deeper, very personal and often a very honest and constructive approach.”
Stephen Carter FAICD, director of Environmental Clean Technologies and a recent program participant, says the bonding was extremely valuable. “There was the establishment of an enduring alumni. Certainly one of my great take–aways was the opportunity to speak to each and every one of those people, seeking their advice on a whole range of issues, and in business that is a fairly rare opportunity.”
Once they step outside the intensity of the program, participants are equipped with new skills and insights to take to their boards in the “real world”. Riley says she has already used these.
“I had the unusual opportunity to practice the skills of a chairman without all of the risks that the position would normally carry. While taking on the role of the chairman was more than a little daunting, I learned a tremendous amount. I am happy to say I have already had the opportunity to further utilise some of these skills with two of the boards I am affiliated with.”
Williamson also believes the program has had “far-reaching consequences” for his directorships. “There have been instances in board meetings where I have applied the new approach and it has been very good in terms of the boardroom contribution that has come out of it.”
For Carter, the program has influenced his approach to a future career he hopes will involve a number of directorships. “I think the era of the professional director is clearly upon us, and the penalties that are being handed out when those responsibilities are being less then fully discharged are significant. So in terms of my directorships, the lessons from the course will certainly be applied. I would also suggest it helped shape my views about directorships in the future and the approach I will need to adopt.”
Identifying and addressing future challenges is a key element of Mastering the Boardroom.
Donovan says this is crucial for a successful directorship. “Directorships require looking to the horizon all the time, and at times even leading the debate in terms of new directions, whether that be new technologies, new political environments, new social trends or scientific discovery. This program really does allow participants to confront those bigger-picture issues.”
Described by some as exhilarating, strenuous, yet highly rewarding, the experience of Mastering the Boardroom leaves directors well-equipped to serve their boards into the future.
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