Earlier this month, West Australian director Fiona Harris FAICD was awarded the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ prestigious WA Division Gold Medal Award for 2016 in recognition of her valuable contributions to Australia’s boardrooms.
Fiona Harris FAICD is a familiar name among directors in the governance community. Her director career started more than 21 years ago when, at the age of 34, she made the decision to leave her position as Partner of KPMG in Sydney – with whom she had worked for 14 years as a chartered accountant– to pursue board positions full-time. Since then, Harris has served on some 27 boards that have spanned all four sectors and as both non-executive director and chairman.
To say that her governance portfolio is diverse is an understatement; few in Australia would equal it.
For Harris, her conduct as a director is founded on her understanding of the duties she owes to the company. She says, “I am very firmly of the belief that when you take on the role of director and the duty to act in the best interests of the company, then you need to test any action that you might take. Quitting on the first sign of trouble just doesn’t cut it for me. Being a professional non-executive director to me means just that – being professional.”
Harris’ first directorships included appointments to Sydney Philharmonia Limited, HBF Health Funds and the Government Employees Superannuation Board, where after several years as non-executive director she was appointed chairman.
Her decision to leave KPMG and become a director was driven by a strong sense of self-belief. She explains, “I was passionately interested in business in all its shapes and forms, and thought I had the skills that would add value to a board.”
From there Harris has served on a number of ASX listed, private company, government authority and not-for-profit boards. She has deployed her talents at Alinta, Burswood, the Holmes-à-Court entity Heytesbury, Rothschilds in Australia and Sundance Resources.
Quitting on the first sign of trouble just doesn’t cut it for me. Being a professional non-executive director to me means just that – being professional.
In recent years, her focus has tended to be on the energy and natural resources sector – where her roles have dealt with base metals and iron ore and have spanned the energy spectrum from upstream oil and gas all the way through to retail, as well as uranium and renewables. The resources industry was, and unfortunately still is, known for its male dominance. This was an obstacle Harris had to overcome when she was asked after seven years as a professional company director to join the board of iron ore miner Portman Mining – as its only woman.
Her inspiration in those early years was former Qantas chairman and KPMG partner, Margaret Jackson AC FAICD, a pioneer for Australian women on boards.
A passionate advocate for diversity on boards, Harris describes the course of her career as a director as “largely reflecting the path that the discussion on diversity has travelled over the past few years.” It has taken time and hasn’t been without its challenges, but significant progress has been made to boost the representation and profile of Australian female directors. “There are talented women out there who will add to any board’s decision-making in a positive way, and who will add value to any business,” she adds.
The advice she offers to women seeking to follow her path is three-fold. First, get to know the men: “there is no point just talking to other women – you need to get known amongst the men.” Second, an aspiring director – male or female – needs a sponsor who can speak to their experience and vouch for them. Finally, identify who you want to be in 10 years’ time, find a person who has walked a similar path and get to know them. That person will likely be offered roles they cannot accept and may suggest you as a candidate.
This advice goes hand-in-hand with her belief that professionalism and a respect for the role of director are the keys to success. “Directors need to do their due diligence around the people and the board on the way in, because being on a board comes with great responsibilities to the company and can be a precarious existence,” she explains.
Having done the due diligence, the work around a boardroom table can be fulfilling, fascinating and very rewarding: “Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of dealing with a wide variety of highly intelligent people and as is often the case, even the most difficult, challenging situations provide the most satisfaction when they are ultimately resolved as a team – that is what I have enjoyed most.”
- BWP Trust
- Infigen Energy Limited
- Perron Group Limited
- Barrington Consulting Group (Chairman)
- Oil Search Limited (2013-2015, Recommencing in Dec 2016)
- Toro Energy Limited (Chairman)
- Sundance Resources Ltd
- Aurora Oli & Gas Ltd
- Altona Mining Ltd
- Australian Institute of Company Directors (National Board Member)
- Territory Resources Limited
- GESB Mutual Ltd
- WASO Holdings Limited
- Australian Institute of Company Directors (WA Councillor and State President)
- Heytesbury Pty Ltd
- Alinta Limited
- Alinta Infrastructure Holdings
- NM Rothschild & Sons (Australia) Ltd
- HBF Health Funds Inc
- Portman Limited
- Burswood Limited
- Kailis & France Foods Pty Ltd
- Evans & Tate Limited
- Plan B Financial Service Ltd (& Plan B Trustees Ltd)
- Government Employees Superannuation Board (Member and Chairman)
- Sydney Philharmonia Limited
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