The modern chair is faced with a range of challenges both inside and outside the boardroom, so what are the qualities that contribute to being an effective board chair? In a recent interview with the AICD, Jane Spring AM FAICD, Chair Disability Council NSW, shared her views on the responsibilities of the chair, her work with Disability Council NSW and her views on the Disability Royal Commission. Spring will speak at the March 2024 Australian Governance Summit in Melbourne on the topic of How to be an effective chair. Register now to secure your seat.

    Operating as an effective chair requires passion for the organisation and its goals, says Jane Spring AM FAICD. She says the most effective chairs are those who are committed to the success of the organisation with the wisdom and intelligence to gain clarity on its direction and lead with respect.

    “Chairs need to have very clear views on sustainability of the organisation, and this represents respect for the people, environment and community,” says Spring.

    “Losing trust of your own people, customers and stakeholders makes it impossible to succeed over time, but trust doesn't happen automatically. I've always found that spending time with board members after meetings and in less formal settings helps me understand people's motivations and their strengths. These relationships are very important.”

    Equally important to the effectiveness of a chair in Spring’s experience is the ability to foster a cohesive and collaborative environment. She believes it's important to share intention up front, to demonstrate a respect for differing views and to accept disagreement as a healthy embodiment of diversity and as a critical collective value for boards.

    Key challenges for the modern board

    The scale of board governance challenges is dramatically changing with issues such as cyber security, AI and brand reputation that can put a company at risk.

    “Boards need to be really sensitive about disparate community attitudes,” Spring adds. “This doesn't mean organisations should never take a stand on issues in the community, but it's important to avoid polarising statements.”

    One way directors and boards can avoid this, according to Spring, is by being inclusive. She knows it’s unlikely the representatives of every aspect of diversity will have a seat at the decision-making table, so it is important for boards to ensure they understand their market. It’s also important to ensure that their organisations are using data and customer feedback sensitively and responsibly to successfully achieve their objectives.

    “I really love chairing boards,” says Spring, who is also the incoming Chair of Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness. "It just gives you such a wonderful opportunity to drive an organisation and to explore the success that it can have. I'm enjoying my involvement in sports organisations, where you can see young people being given an opportunity to thrive. If we at Sydney University can make sure that we're providing a great environment for elite athletes to thrive while providing an opportunity for students to have a great participative experience, then that will be a great success for me.”

    Spring says that creating a great environment for whoever it is, whether it's athletes, clients or customers, is an incredibly rewarding aspect of a chair’s leadership role.

    AGS 2024 Speaker Jane Spring AM01:11

    Inclusivity and disability

    With over 30 years of lived experience of paraplegia following a car accident in 1990, Spring says that chairing Disability Council NSW has been an enormous learning curve for her.

    “Chairing an organisation with people with different disabilities around the table is a huge area of growth for me. It's something that I am constantly learning about and making sure that the information we share meets the needs of differing board members and enables them to contribute and participate. It’s challenging, but it's very worthwhile.”

    Spring’s definition of lived experience at the board table means adapting, accommodating and making sure that board papers are prepared to meet the needs of people with varying degrees of disability.

    “They're not all receptive to written board papers,” she says. “I think that's probably true of our board members. We have a spectrum of different ways of learning and absorbing information. That’s why it's important for chairs to understand board members—to make sure that the way the information comes to the board makes it easy for them to digest and allows them to bring forward their insights so we get the best possible decision-making.”

    With last month’s release of the Disability Royal Commission’s final report, 222 recommendations have been put forth on how to improve laws, policies, structures and practices to ensure a more inclusive and just society supporting the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Jane relates to the recommendations to the boardroom and the visibility of leaders with disabilities.

    “One of the really significant things that has come out of the Disability Royal Commission, and in recent surveys of people with disability, is that people with disability are not seeing leaders with disability. They're not seeing themselves represented in any way in decision making.

    “One of my missions is to make sure that I am visible, so that people with disabilities can see me. And more importantly, that I can mentor and develop other people with disabilities around those tables so that they too can be representative of the lived experience that is so important for boards to be hearing, to absorb, and then to act on.”

    Jane Spring will present on How to be an effective chair at the Australian Governance Summit 2024 over two days in March at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Register early to secure your ticket here.

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