Tasmanian Gold Medal Winner Sarah Merridew on why networking matters

Thursday, 01 April 2021

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    Sarah Merridew, director of TasNetworks and winner of the AICD's Tasmanian Gold Medal Award reflects on a career in corporate governance, and shares the key to success: building relationships.

    I grew up in Hobart and started work in 1973 with Peat Marwick in Melbourne — the forerunner to KPMG. Of 30 graduates, only two were women. I quickly learned that if you didn’t speak up for yourself, then no-one was going to.

    I met my husband at university. After graduation, his work took us all over Australia. We have two daughters. When the younger was a few months old, and the older still under two, we went to the UK so my husband could take up a position in a hospital. I took a career break because in the 1980s there was no paid maternity leave or subsidised childcare. I’m often asked, “When is a good time to have children?” If a person has good experience and skills, there are opportunities to find a way back in and obtain meaningful and worthwhile roles.

    In 1987, I started working part-time for Deloitte and gradually increased my hours as the girls became older. I took on an administrative role running the practice, until I told the managing partner, “I need more challenges, I can’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life.’” He said, “You could be a partner.” I hadn’t seen that as a possibility. His faith in me and encouragement were the incentive for me to pursue that goal. In 1993, I became a partner in Deloitte Australia — one of only three female partners at the time. I’ve never felt I wasn’t given an opportunity because I was a female.

    I became interested in corporate governance soon after becoming a partner. As audit partner, I attended board meetings to give clearance on the financial statements and present the audit report. This let me observe boards in action. In the early 1990s, governance models were quite basic compared with now, especially in some not-for-profits such as nursing homes. Often, the CEOs would come to me for advice on how they could improve their governance and I bought and distributed many copies of an AICD booklet on the roles and duties of directors. I was invited to take up my first role with a small government board through a professional contact who was one of my economics lecturers at university. The next role came about through my personal network, too. You work hard at it and other things follow.

    In 2003, with concerns about potential conflicts of interest, Deloitte policy changed so partners were no longer permitted to serve as directors. I decided to retire from the partnership to focus on my career as a company director.

    A highlight of my board career has been as a director of TasRail . With a small board of five directors, we had to establish the company on a sound footing to bring the business into the modern era as a freight rail transport and logistics business. The rail assets were bought by the Tasmanian government from the previous owner, which had run it as a branch with a local manager. We appointed the executive team and engineers; and established proper corporate infrastructure, including IT, accounting, safety and asset management systems. The overhaul required everybody to work extremely hard.

    I always advise aspiring directors to get good executive and management roles and experience, preferably in larger organisations. A lot of women have doubts. I hear all the time, “Oh no, I’m not ready to apply because I don’t have all the prerequisite skills and experience”. Females are often inclined to undersell themselves. To overcome this, boards and management must ensure whenever a position is advertised there is a requirement for women to be shortlisted. Increasingly, I see this happening.

    Zoom meetings aren’t ideal on a permanent basis. To really understand what is happening with the business and the culture you need to get out in the business. Getting together, including informally, is better for building board relationships and cohesion.

    Upon joining a board, it’s important to learn about all aspects of the business, including meeting the functional and divisional staff. When I was appointed to the board of the Tasmanian Water and Sewerage Corporation (TasWater), a friend asked what I knew about those businesses. But I wasn’t on the board to operate a sewage treatment plant. It was because of my financial, audit, governance and risk management skills. You learn about the business operations on the job.

    The dynamics and relationships on the board are important. Not just the relationship between the chair and CEO, but also all the other members of the management team — the company secretary and other more junior members of the team are just as valuable.

    Although there is currently a lot of talk about remote working being the way of the future, it has its limits. Zoom meetings aren’t ideal on a permanent basis. To really understand what is happening with the business and the culture, you need to get out in the business. Getting together, including informally, is better for building board relationships and cohesion.

    Mentoring is important, but it can mean different things to different people. What is useful depends on what people want and what their situation is. I like being able to use my contacts to help people get where they want to be.

    A lot of aspiring women directors start out taking unpaid roles with NFPs, which can be rewarding and good experience, but as a woman, you need to be careful these are not the only opportunities you are given. Building networks and continuing to develop business and other professional skills are essential. The AICD has a wonderful range of resources.

    When I reflect on my career, at times I may have been a bit impatient. I try to be a better listener now, and to see others’ points of view. This is certainly something I’ve learned through my board experience, where there is a more collegial atmosphere than the often competitive environment in a large professional services firm.

    I’ve always believed “life is a journey, not a destination”. If I had set and stuck to a career plan and goals back in 1973, I wouldn’t have envisaged many of the experiences I’ve had. So often you end up in places you didn’t expect, but these present different challenges and opportunities. You learn from mistakes. Everything is a valuable learning experience.

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