What I've learnt: Chris Heffernan

Monday, 18 April 2016


    Former AFL player turned Essendon Football Club director Chris Heffernan MAICD shares the lessons learnt in his transition from the field to the boardroom.

    Chris Heffernan MAICD has been a non-executive director of the Essendon Football Club since 2011. A former player, he was a member of the 2000 Essendon Bombers premiership team, and played 170 AFL games between 1997 and 2007 representing both the Essendon and Melbourne Football Clubs.

    Despite a difficult governance period in recent years, the Essendon board and management team have overseen solid membership growth, sustained strong commercial partnerships and maintained unity and stability.

    Away from football, Heffernan is an associate director within Ernst & Young’s M&A corporate advisory team, which advises large private and ASX-listed clients on mergers, acquisitions, divestments and capital raisings.

    Heffernan spoke to AICD and shared the lessons learnt in his transition from the field to the boardroom.

    AICD: What skills learnt as an AFL player have been useful in your business career?

    Chris Heffernan (CH): Although very different environments, learning to operate in a high-pressure team environment has cross-over from sport to business. There are certain similarities like learning to work effectively with diverse personality types. Playing team sport teaches you that by getting everyone to adopt team success as their focus, the team will have the best chance of succeeding – individual success is just a by-product.

    Another is handling criticism (now known as ‘room for improvements’!) and stress. Playing AFL football, mistakes and the associated feedback from coaches and media is very direct, very public and is a regular occurrence. You become good at accepting it, learning from it, and importantly, moving on.

    AICD: What is the most important lesson you’ve learnt since becoming a non-executive director?

    CH: Governance can’t be taken for granted. Governance systems need to be designed to pick up deviations from acceptable practice, quickly. Sometimes having high-quality people in place for an extended period can inadvertently “mask” a poor governance structure. It’s not until these high-quality staff are replaced by less capable people that this might become evident. So you need to focus on the underlying governance structures.

    AICD: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for AFL boards?

    CH: Like most boards, the challenge is getting the balance right between strategy and operations to ensure good governance. In the AFL, this can be difficult because board members are generally so passionate about the operational aspect – the football! A number of clubs now have board members who are unashamedly non-supporters of their club. This is an excellent step to address this operational tendency.

    Diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity. Around 35 to 40 per cent of AFL members are female, so why board representation isn’t of similar composition makes little sense to me.

    AICD: What advice would you give other sports men and women who are considering following a similar career path to the boardroom?

    CH: Study and part-time work, while still focused predominately on sport, is the first step. It’s hard to start from standing still when you retire; it’s much better if you have a running start. Then gaining corporate experience in a non-sporting organisation is obviously important.

    Overseas experience is also helpful. I worked in New York for Deutsche Bank three years before joining Ernst & Young in my current executive role. I found overseas work experience a great way to accelerate professional development (which is useful because of the late start). It automatically broadens your horizons, and you learn a lot about yourself as well.

    AICD: What mix of director skill sets does a sports board need?

    CH: At Essendon we have a skills matrix we use as a guiding principle in assembling the appropriate collective skill set. Directors are elected by member vote, but the skills matrix gives members the opportunity to make informed decisions. The skills matrix includes business management, finance, legal and governance; media and communications, government; elite sport, ethics, culture and diversity, community and entrepreneurship. But AFL football and clubs are rapidly evolving and this required skill set will also evolve.

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