Adara Group chair and Suncorp board member Audette Exel on what she’s learned being on a listed board.
The chair cares
Audette Exel believes her Suncorp experience has helped inform her approach to governance at Adara Group. “Being on the board of a heavily regulated company shows you governance at a whole new level,” she says. “The responsibilities and complexities are huge. Doing that well, at the same time as keeping your eye on the strategic and business issues that drive the company, is a balancing act.”
As chair of those boards, Exel says she values directors who are genuinely passionate about the cause. “When I meet people who are looking to come onto a board for experience, but don’t seem to care which board, that’s a warning sign for me.”
She says she looks for different voices to add to the richness of thought, and integrity is mandatory: “It stands at the centre of everything that matters.”
There are 19 directors across all the entities, including Exel, who’s the common director and chair. The development organisations have two formal board meetings a year, a formal board call on the budget and one informal board call on a key strategic area. Meetings are held consecutively by dial-in — “like one giant board meeting”.
Get out of your comfort zone
Exel’s experience of global finance, governance and strategic direction while running Adara has helped influence her thinking on the Suncorp board, which she joined in 2012. “For me, being a non-executive director of a major public company was not an ambition. I was totally focused on Adara,” she says. “When I was headhunted for the role, at first I said no.”
She changed her tune when told the position was with Suncorp. “Suddenly, I was interested. I had run a bank in one of the world’s largest reinsurance markets and had a huge interest in looking at pricing and risk across balance sheets.”
Another factor that helped change her mind was the adage that you need to regularly do something that scares the living daylights out of you. “It was big, scary and right up my alley.”
Piece together the business puzzle
Exel admits to being on a steep learning curve during her time at Suncorp. “You get to see this organisation with 15,000 staff and nine million customers and watch the pieces of the puzzle come all the way up to the board, as well as how senior teams approach things, the complexity of financial services, regulation and the licence to operate. I’ve learned a lot from Ziggy [Switkowski AO FAICD, Suncorp chair].”
With her financial and entrepreneurial experience, Exel finds she is able to contribute a different perspective to board discussions. “I have added my voice across all commercial aspects of Suncorp. I’m one of a number of directors who are also very interested in the changing expectations of business and the multi-stakeholder model of business bringing benefits to shareholders.”
The board, which has four men and three women, is collegial but diverse. “It’s to the huge credit of many boards in Australia that they are widening their recruitment pool and looking for people who have diverse approaches. That needs to happen.”
Listen to others
“One of the things I’ve learned at the board table is that it’s not a debate, it’s a discussion — and there is a difference. Ziggy knows how to listen to all voices. It’s easy to be convinced of your own position; it’s so powerful to listen to others. Hopefully, with my background in banking and reinsurance, I can add a different lens.”
Governance is key
“From an NFP perspective, there’s also a lot of governance. And that’s so important, as our clients — our beneficiaries — are people in extreme poverty. We can cause real harm if we get it wrong.
“I feel for the many great small NFPs who work so hard and have to really stretch for resources to help them manage governance when donors don’t want to fund their admin or core support. It makes me grateful to have our businesses fund all our core support and admin. So for us, governance is critical and we pay for it ourselves.”
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