When Ken Dean FAICD was a teenager, he and his now wife Kathy used to help church-based community group the Sydney City Mission, taking underprivileged children on outings.
“We used to take the kids on outings, often just to a local park or beach, and sometimes further afield. One of the favourites was taking the train to Circular Quay and ferry to Manly. The children were in residential care, and a day’s outing like that was a real treat,” Dean recalls. “At other times we would just read stories to them, read books, and be with them.”
Close to half a century later, Dean is chair of Mission Australia, which in 1997 brought together missions from nine Australian cities to form the one charitable organisation.
His personal experience aside, Dean came to join the board via another connection, when then Mission Australia chair Ewen Crouch AM FAICD, with whom Dean serves on the BlueScope board, asked him if he would be interested in joining.
A former Shell finance executive, Dean remains on the BlueScope Board and is also on the boards of Energy Australia and Virgin Australia.
Dean, a practising Christian, says Mission Australia, “is inspired by Jesus Christ and exists to meet human need and spread the knowledge of the love of God.”
Specifically, its goal is to reduce homelessness and strengthen communities. This also draws in dealing with the many social problems that contribute to homelessness and the risk of homelessness – drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown and employability.
The organisation also provides short-term crisis accommodation and long-term affordable housing, as well as accommodation for the elderly long-term homeless. Dean says elderly long-term homeless people are a new social problem because in the past, long-term homeless people generally didn’t live into old age.
“You do have old people who have never had stable accommodation and who are at the stage of life where they can’t look after themselves any longer and they’ve been largely bypassed by the traditional aged care facilities,” he says.
Mission Australia adheres to ASIC’s Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations in the same way for-profit companies do. However, as NFPs often may not have the large workforces or resources to engage outside consultants, non-executive directors (NEDs) may be required to adopt an unofficial, pseudo-consultant role.
“You need to be prepared to provide that time and that value as part of being involved in an NFP. It just goes with the territory. It can actually make the role more rewarding but it also makes the commitment more demanding, more challenging,” he says.
At least once a year, the board assembles for three or four days to not only immerse itself in the official board business but also to visit frontline service locations. Directors may also take the chance to meet Mission Australia staff in situ when they travel around Australia.
“You hear the challenges on both sides of that service delivery, about the challenges of the people who, in many cases, are suffering real disadvantage and you get a better appreciation of that. And you certainly get a better appreciation of the challenges that the Mission Australia staff and volunteers are facing daily.
“Some of the challenges, I have to say, are heartbreaking because of the circumstances that people are in,” Dean says. “The better you understand that, I think the better you are able to give a lead to the organisation and judge priorities on programs,” he adds,
About 60 per cent of the work Mission Australia does is directly funded and provided under government contracts. As a Christian organisation providing services on behalf of a secular government, this means of funding changes the way the organisation operates and provides some scopes and accountabilities.
“One hundred and fifty years ago there was virtually no government safety net, and the charity of organisations like the City Missions was the only thing standing between needy people and their dire needs,” Dean says.
“Mission Australia is never shy about identifying itself as an organisation with a Christian basis, but our services are provided with equal compassion to anyone who needs them, regardless of who, what or where they are,” Dean says.
Fundraising has been a challenge since the global financial crisis, though Dean says some people remain extraordinarily generous. Mission Australia is doubly challenged because it doesn’t have a large asset base to provide ongoing income.
“In that sense it’s the ultimate unsustainable business, yet it’s been sustained for more than one and a half centuries because people do recognise the value of what’s provided and are willing to support it. One of the challenges is to ensure that we continue to provide services that are robust and that are needed and that will be seen to be worth supporting,” Dean says.
For an organisation like Mission Australia, which can best achieve results by pulling a number of services together and delivering them as a package, it can be more difficult for the public to see the connection with the money they are donating. “We need to continually demonstrate that value,” Dean comments.
Mission Australia supports the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) and would like to see it have a stronger mandate because it has an important role in establishing transparent governance over a wide range of bodies with radically different operations and objectives. Its next aim should be more commonality of reporting standards, he says.
Dean grew up in Cronulla, the beachside suburb in Sydney’s south, and attended the local high school. Having enjoyed economics at school, he decided to study commerce at UNSW, where he won the university medal.
He received several job offers after finishing his degree, but chose to pursue a career with Shell in part because he had received a Shell scholarship in his final year at university and in part because he was impressed by the company’s commitment to growth and learning.
“I stayed there for 30 years. You don’t stay 30 years if you don’t find that it delivers on what it promises. I thoroughly enjoyed and benefitted from my career with Shell,” he says. Dean began in marketing before moving to computing and finance, which is where he made his career, although he benefitted from being exposed to several different parts of the business.
The job also laid the groundwork for his career as a NED – Shell’s commitment to training and moving executives from role to role allowed Dean to develop commercial discipline. Executives were accountable for putting the technical skills they had acquired into practice in a productive and profitable fashion.
An unexpected but formative experience for Dean took place in the 1970s on a beach in New Caledonia where he had been posted to the French South Pacific territory for a short-term project. Fellow Shell executive Pierre Wack happened to be visiting at the same time. One of the intellectual powerhouses behind Shell’s development of scenario planning, Wack was unable to get on his scheduled plane, so spent the day sitting on the beach talking to Dean and his wife instead.
“It was really mind extending to be engaging with him and to understand the value of what has become known as scenario planning, which is really just thinking about the world in the context of alternatives,” he says. “All of those sorts of experiences mould the kind of abilities and perspectives on the world that you have.”
Becoming a non-executive director
His formal introduction to NED roles was also thanks to Shell. In 1990 Dean moved to the UK with Shell to become the finance advisor for the Middle East region and in that role was either a director of a number of companies in which Shell had an interest or on the joint venture committees of joint ventures throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
Returning to Australia in 1997 as finance director of Shell Australia, Dean was appointed a NED of Woodside Petroleum, in which Shell had a stake.
Thus he was well prepared when towards the end of 2004 he was asked if he was interested in joining the board of Santos.
By then he was back in London, and the offer was a catalyst for his and his wife’s decision for him to resign from Shell move back to Australia, where their children were living.
But his career as a NED exclusively only was short lived, because he was quickly approached about taking on the role of CFO at Alumina.
The role was almost like being a full-time NED, Dean says, because much of it involved managing Alumina’s 40 percent interest in Alcoa’s upstream alumina businesses.
“It wasn’t totally off plan A but it wasn’t exactly what I’d intended to do,” Dean says. “After three years, it was running pretty well and I was happy to go back to plan A. That’s when I joined the BlueScope board and I’ve been doing things of that kind ever since.”
The transition to a NED career was fairly seamless for Dean, in part because of his previous experience on a range of boards and in part because the role of a senior finance executive is in some ways similar to that of a director.
“A lot of what finance senior executives do, you have to do by way of influence. You’ve got authority and you can wield a big stick because you control finances and all those sorts of things,” he says. “But, if you’re going to be productive and positive, a lot of what you do isn’t because you have line authority to run the business; it’s because you are able to convince and put forward ideas and talk them through. That’s not very different, to be honest, from what a lot of non-executive directorship is all about.”
A constantly changing environment
Dean says that directors today are working in an environment of constant change, where inflection points are coming more quickly and supplanting the business-as-usual incremental change we have seen in the past.
One such change is, of course, technology. While Dean acknowledges that technological change brings threats to an existing business, he prefers to take a more positive view.
“I think there are some unprecedented opportunities for new business and new industries to develop – that’s an exciting thing,” he says.
“Many of those same technologies can actually be even bigger opportunities for established businesses, because if you can see a way to embrace the opportunities that technology affords, and be agile enough and flexible enough to embrace the new technology with the backing of financial resources and technical abilities, then what you’ve got is an engine that can be even more powerful than the small start-up.”
Interestingly, unlike many directors who bemoan the amount of regulation with which boards and companies need to comply, Dean sees it as creating an environment that can foster creativity. He relates an experiment in child psychology he learned about at university.
When children are put into an open play area with swings and slippery dips at the centre, most will stick closely to the play equipment. But if that same play area is surrounded by a fence, the children will roam and explore the play area right up to the border of the fence. “They will enjoy the freedom that they’ve got because they know where the boundaries are,” Dean says.
“Having good regulation is a bit similar. It defines where the boundary is. It frees people up to be very creative in fully exploiting the territory that you want them legitimately to exploit because they know where the boundaries are and they know where they have to stop. The boundaries are very important. It’s not just a negative thing. It’s actually something that empowers people to use all the scope that you want them to use.”
Nonetheless, he is concerned that some corporate regulators don’t take the same view of regulation and tend to look at the negative. Australia has moved from an environment where, by and large, people trusted self-regulation or trusted people to do the right thing, to a world where nobody trusts anyone unless compliance is proven.
“That carries a whole bundle of compliance with it and that costs. At the end of the day, it costs consumers, it costs investors, and it costs society generally.”
Along with his role as chair of Mission Australia, Dean is also occupied with a number of other board roles.
BlueScope is on a firmer footing these days after being hit by the high dollar, increasing costs and cheaper imports during the financial crisis. But Dean says it will never be a set-and-forget business.
“The things that got us into those difficulties – going back to the GFC – and the cost pressures and the import opportunities that people have will come around from time to time. BlueScope has to be very alert to that to make sure that we remain viable as best we can,” he says.
“I think we’ve proven that in the way the BlueScope businesses are operating today. I am proud of that. I think the business has done really well.”
His directorship of Energy Australia keeps him involved in the Australian energy industry. “EA has gone though substantial and successful internal restructuring, but the industry itself is a huge challenge” he says.
“Australia is suffering from more than a decade of indecision and politicisation of energy policy, and changing and mixed messages about de-carbonisation and industry regulation. To many of us in the industry it has been clear for a long time that carbon pricing in some form is necessary. I’ve argued for it, and I’m personally really disappointed that we still don’t see a clear path to having it in place.”
He is currently also learning about the aviation industry, having joined Virgin Australia’s board last year. Reflecting on aviation, he observes: “On one level it’s not very different to anywhere else. It’s a case of thinking through structure, financial stability, believability of overall strategy and getting on with it.”
Dean keeps busy outside of his various directorships. In fact, he wonders if he is involved in too many things, but ultimately he suspects people can’t ever have too many interests.
In fact, when he was an executive hiring staff he would look at applicants’ out of work activities, because he believes they can indicate an ability to see things in a bigger context.
Dean and his wife remain involved in his local church and spend time with their three married children and their grandchildren. He is a keen landscape photographer and gardens and builds furniture in his workshop. His latest work was what he describes as a self-serving project – a cabinet to hold his woodturning tools.
Mission Australia will also be keeping him busy this year as the board seeks a CEO to replace Catherine Yeomans GAICD, who steps down this year and whom Dean says has done a great job.
“Finding the right person to build on the strong foundation, and lead the next phase of Mission Australia’s development is just about the most important role a director, and chairman, can play.”
It’s just another important job in a life full of them, at which he’ll no doubt excel.
Three tips for NFP Directors
Clarity of purpose
NFPs need to be very clear about what they are trying to achieve, says Dean. Sometimes the purpose can be grounded in history, as is Mission Australia’s. Even so, the objective needs to remain current and be well understood by people; both staff and the wider public.
As with any board, NFPs need the right mix of skills, but this can be more difficult for a faith-based organisation like Mission Australia. There is only a percentage of the population who might be sufficiently experienced and have the required technical disciplines. This is further narrowed because Mission Australia is also seeking people who support the objectives of the organisation.
Trust and transparency
The relationship between the executive and the CEO – and all the senior leaders in the organisation – should be built on trust and transparency, Dean says. This can sometimes be taken for granted in NFPs and so must be constantly worked on.
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