Former RetireAustralia CEO Alison Quinn used the AICD Chair's Mentoring Program to prepare for the next stage of her career. Her mentor, Guy Cowan, says the benefits of mentoring go both ways.
When Alison Quinn GAICD left her role as RetireAustralia CEO last year, she started casting about for the next challenge. “I wasn’t quite sure as to what I was going to do with my career,” says Quinn, who has 25 years’ experience as a CEO and senior executive in the property development and aged care sectors. “[But] I wasn’t interested in hanging up my boots and doing anything on a part-time basis.”
A colleague nudged her in the direction of the Chair’s Mentoring program, the AICD’s flagship board diversity initiative. The program pairs aspiring and emerging female directors with influential business leaders from S&P/ASX 200 organisations, with a view to helping mentees develop as directors and understand their unique value proposition to boards. Quinn gained a place on the highly competitive 2019-20 program. “During those three or four months when the application process was underway, I determined that this was something that I wanted to do in a full-time capacity,” she says.
Quinn’s mentor, Guy Cowan MAICD, has had a long career in the oil and gas sector, as well as diverse experience in mining, property services, engineering, food processing and agricultural commodities. He sits on one NFP and four commercial boards. Although both based in South East Queensland, after a couple of face-to-face meetings, Quinn and Cowan had to connect via videoconference, in line with COVID-19 restrictions.
“It was quite serendipitous that I was able to secure a mentor such as Guy to walk with me through those first few months of actively pursuing a non-executive director career,” says Quinn. “Having forged a connection face-to-face made it easier to transition to phone and video meetings.”
Cowan’s commitment to boosting diversity on boards meant he’d previously participated as a mentor on the program. “Sometimes the mentor gets us much out of it as a mentee, because you’re comparing stories and experiences,” he says. “It’s about the quality of the relationship and the trust. If I can feel at the end of it that I’ve helped somebody achieve their objectives, that’s very satisfying.”
Yet when Cowan saw Quinn’s CV, he wasn’t sure she needed him.
“She seemed to be pretty senior already on some boards and quite capable of managing herself,” he explains.
Quinn, on the other hand, says Cowan helped her clarify why she wanted to become a non-executive director and clearly communicate that to chairs, or headhunters. She also noted that he helped to highlight the value of her broad-based, generalist, commercially orientated career.
“Sometimes, people are looking for a box to tick and I don’t necessarily always fit that box,” says Quinn. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an accountant, I don’t have a specialty. Guy has been very good in drawing out the skill sets to evidence that I should be comfortable and confident about what I’m doing because I can add value to the organisation I’m talking with.”
Fairly early on, Quinn also restructured her CV to make it more board-appropriate. “Anyone coming from an executive role should effectively take what they have, shred it and start again,” she says. “Guy and I had lots of conversations that talked me through it. What skills did you have to apply in order to achieve that? What were the struggle points, the challenges? How did you manage the risks associated with that? It was eliciting more the strategies that were implemented.”
Quinn found transitioning from executive to non-executive roles also presents new challenges. “We’ve teased out a lot in our discussions how to understand your role and the contribution you can make; how you can influence outcomes as a non-executive director,” she says. “Your ability to influence is more indirect — it comes from your capacity to exemplify to the executives and to your board peers, your credibility, your skill sets from your background, sound judgment, and an ability to communicate it.”
Anyone coming from an executive role should effectively take their CV, shred it and start again.
Cowan says all directors necessarily go through this learning process and that part of the role of any chair is to mentor new board members. “When I’ve hired new directors on a couple of boards, I’ve been careful to spend time with them just to make sure they don’t overstep their mark,” he says. “[On one] we had a very successful executive who still thought she was in her old role. She was challenging management to the point where I had to intervene, but she settled down and became a very good director.”
Diversity is one aspect of the non-executive director career path both Quinn and Cowan relish. “Guy’s a perfect example of this, as he’s got quite a diverse portfolio,” says Quinn. “He’s involved in different sectors, he’s involved in listed and unlisted private organisations, and he’s done startups as well as very mature organisations.”
According to Cowan, being on a diverse range of boards is stimulating for the individual director, but also brings benefits to the companies involved. “You learn from one board and take it to the other, so long as it’s not breaching confidentiality,” he says. “A well-structured portfolio can be very rewarding from an experience and a diversity perspective.”
Every relationship between a mentee and mentor is different, evolves over time, and likely will continue in some form even after the formal aspect of the program concludes. For some mentees, the most pressing issue will be honing their self-presentation skills. Others will seek advice on managing fellow board members’ contributions, or the best way to elicit feedback on their performance from the chair.
Broadening networks is another important benefit of the Chair’s Mentoring program. Cowan has introduced Quinn to people who may offer advice or consider her for a future board position. “Getting connected with more people is useful. And bear in mind that board hiring is not the same as executive hiring,” he says. “Sometimes, you’re approached for a board position and you’ll be talking for a year because they’re looking to retire somebody, but they’re waiting for the next AGM, or there’s an equity raising and they want you to come in after that.”
Quinn considers it’s the intangible aspects of the mentorship that offer the greatest value. “The best part out of this program is the richness of the relationship and the engagement that you have with your mentor around what it is like to be a non-executive director, how to get roles, how to act like a non-executive director and how to deal with different circumstances,” she says. “To me, that has been the worthwhile part.”
Find more information on the Chair's Mentoring program here.
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