Sam Mostyn MAICD, a leading director and sustainability expert, shares her insights on the ideal composition and thinking of a modern board.
Sam Mostyn MAICD has studied law and political science, worked as a communications policy adviser to a former PM and held senior management roles. Her board roles span corporate (Citi Australia, Mirvac, Transurban, Virgin Australia) sport (Sydney Swans), arts (Carriageworks) and other not-for-profits (the Diversity Council Australia) to the Global Business and Sustainable Development Commission, insurance and climate change.
She’s an Australian Football League (AFL) tragic who’s helped bring the ground-breaking women’s game to the competition, and has helped facilitate the revival of the former inner-city Sydney industrial precinct of Carriageworks into an edgy, community orientated, multi-arts centre.
It’s a diversity of roles, skills and perspectives acquired throughout a 30-year career that Mostyn says give her powerful insights into complex issues and better equips her to add value to the boards she sits on.
“The ability to be a good director in arts, sport and the not-for-profit (NFP) sector is heavily informed by my experience on company boards. I’m also more effective because I can access other aspects of the community. Creative, artistic people come at problems from a completely different perspective and it helps you to learn different ways of problem solving.
“I’ve met many women who were told they should join a NFP board as a stepping stone to a corporate board. I think the reverse is true now. Corporate boards should look for people with broader NFP experience. A better director is someone who sits across multiple parts of the economy and society and uses that insight.”
The contemporary board
“A board should be comprised of a group of people more different than they are the same, but who are bound by the beliefs and support for the governance role they’re playing for that company and the shareholders invested in the organisation.
“It’s people who can engage in complex discussion and bring different parts of the story to bear. They still have to understand the business case, the finances, risk management and the drivers of the business itself. These are must-haves.
“But I think a contemporary director must also exhibit the qualities of humility and curiosity, and be a respectful listener. And courage really matters — to be open to the more complex role of bringing the outside world in.
“These are very complex skills to have — skills of empathy and listening and observing — but then being able to make high-level decisions. That’s quite a different set of skills that a typical skills matrix doesn’t pick up. We’ve got to get better at doing that. Increasingly, we’ll see some of the old versions of director skills being challenged by the new world that we’re working in.”
Managing board discussions
“You have to be creative to bring together disparate views on issues and draw them into the open. Sometimes that means bringing someone into the board discussion to spark and provoke people in directions that can cause some discomfort, then creating safe spaces to have the conversations.
“It might be a scientist to help us get across climate change; an economist wrestling with the question of how we think about the basic wage in inequality terms; or someone who can tell us what life will be like with the ‘internet of things’ or the sharing economy.
Boards as long-term stewards
“Stewardship sits at the heart of what we do. It is to be ethical in engaging with societies, to be making good decisions in the face of short-termism and to stand for something.
“When the average term of a director is close to 10 years and CEO terms are around four years, it is the board that really holds the long-term values and culture in check and, with good corporate memory, acts as the protector of long-term value.
“I’ve had instances where boards have had to deal with cultural issues that involve difficult decisions about high-performing people who have behaved very poorly.
“No amount of short-term profit-making and being good at some things is an excuse for bad behaviour, transgression of company values and the culture of the organisation.
“It is a privilege to be on a board. You are holding under your guidance a community and an asset you have to pass on in better shape. I can’t think of a better word than stewardship.”
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