Emily Chantiri speaks to Maurice Wrightson about his early career and his decision to follow a path to directorship.
Maurice Wrightson GAICD is in the enviable position of being able to combine his directorship work with his social justice work. His time at Australia Post has afforded him the opportunity to pick and choose where he directs his energies.
Wrightson started working with Australia Post in 1975 after finishing school. He remained there for another four years before successfully applying for a scholarship at the company and embarking on a bachelor of business. “I was fortunate to be able to study full time on a salary. I remember thinking what a great deal this was.”
Wrightson remained at Australia Post for another 30 years, working his way up through numerous departments. During this time, he successfully applied a broad range of leadership and change management skills. He has held senior executive positions at both state and national levels and has also chaired the Aust Post Tel, a not-for-profit (NFP) association owned by the staff of Australia Post and Telstra.
One of his earlier roles with Australia Post saw him spend five years in industrial relations, before moving into a more administrative role. He held several regional manager positions, as well as the deputy general manager, retail NSW/ACT and regional CBD manager. His final role before leaving the organisation in 2006 was national manager for workforce capability for the mail and network divisions. He says of his time at Australia Post: “The big advantage of an organisation like Australia Post is that you can change jobs without changing employers and work across many exciting areas. I was 50 years old when I left and it was a very good employer, with benefits such as the 14.3 per cent contribution to my super that began from day one. From that point of view, I could pick and choose what I wanted to do.”
After leaving the firm, Wrightson set his sights on directorship and executive coaching and shortly after, noticed a board role for Australian Primary Healthcare Nurses Association (APNA) advertised in the Australian Financial Review. Wrightson landed the role of chair of the finance, audit and risk committee in 2007 and regularly commutes to Melbourne for the meetings. Next year marks his 10th anniversary of joining the board.
“The organisation was incorporated in 2001, with the help of some funding from the Federal Government. APNA’s constitution is quite progressive and the board comprises of five nurse members and three co-opted board members.”
Currently, the five nurse directors are female and the two co-opted members are male – one of the co-opted positions is presently vacant.
He adds that the co-opted members are there to supplement the skills of the board; Wrightson’s financial acumen and leadership roles accent the requirements of the board. Working on a predominately female board, Wrightson says he is encouraged by the increasing recognition by male directors that if age or gender balance is missing from a board, then that board will be deficient in decision-making and strategic capabilities.
“Boards are not able to think through and address the issues without these two components of our society,” he says. “Look at industries such as service and retail where the markets are 50 per cent female, or depending on what you’re offering, there will be a large percentage of younger people in a mix of the generation spread.”
For this reason, he says, “If your board is going to be successful, it needs to take account of the views, needs and wants of these sectors. From my experience, if you can get the representation of those people on your board then there is much greater understanding.”
In addition, Wrightson says it is paramount for any board to be skills-based. “There must be a balance between contribution and skillset, which can be a conundrum,” he says. “However, tipping out an experienced director for somebody else, just to fill quotas, no-one wants this. So again, it is about managing the balance. Another part of the challenge is to develop the skills of those who come onto the board. Of course, realistically this may not always be easy.”
His experience with APNA is a positive one, he adds, but of course, it does not come without challenges. “When I first joined, the board was far too involved in the day-to-day management function of the association instead of the functions of a board,” he says. “This was largely due to not having any significant financial and governance structures in place. The board was there because they have a passion for their industry, however this meant the board wasn’t operating at the level it should. The challenge in the early days was to lift the board from an operational thought process to one built on strategy and governance.”
He believes that recognition of APNA and the contribution of nurses to the health sector is neglected. “If I can be part of raising the recognition of the contribution that this association makes to the health of the nation, then that would be fantastic. When I leave I want to make sure that there are robust financials with good governance and strategic development.”
Work with headspace
Wrightson is also directing his experience to another health-based organisation, headspace. A Federal Government funded initiative, headspace has centres in metropolitan, regional and rural areas around Australia. It provides early intervention mental health assistance to young people and provides assistance in physical health, work and study support, and alcohol and drug services. For the past three years, Wrightson has chaired the consortium which oversees the Gosford and Lakehaven centres.
“We meet for half a day, once a month. As with APNA, we have to stay strategically focused rather than focus on the operational side of the business.”
One of the programs being trialled by headspace is a Federal Government initiative to employ two vocational support workers to provide individualised assistance to young people with mental health problems for the purpose of finding employment. “This area of mental health is about raising the level of understanding and raising the level of acceptance; headspace does an excellent job of this for young people aged 12 to 24 years old.”
Beyond the boardroom
Away from his board duties, Wrightson is a proud family man and spends a lot of time with his children and grandchildren. His wife, Frances, is an anaesthetist at Gosford Hospital on the NSW central coast.
“I do the majority of the childcare, due to the hours my wife works. I also look after the children of my two adult children from a previous marriage. Every second or third Wednesday, I’m on the grandparent roster, which means I take care of five girls, all under the age of eight. This is what I do in my spare time,” he jokes.
Wrightson is happy to be at a stage in his life where he can help others. “I no longer have to ‘do’ to make a living. If I can help via coaching or problem solving, then this is the sort of contribution I am looking to make in the community. It’s a nice position to be in and I’ve been given an excellent opportunity to do it.”
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