Life as a non-executive director can be helter skelter. Christopher Niesche investigates how to better juggle commitments and eliminate unnecessary tasks.

    When Graham Bradley FAICD stepped down as managing director of Perpetual a decade ago to begin his career as a non-executive director, he thought he could do without a personal assistant.

    But arranging his own travel, corresponding back and forth over board and committee dates and dealing with “enormous” amounts of email traffic ate too much into his time.

    “I struggled on but with even relatively few boards, I very soon realised that I needed more help so I engaged a full-time personal assistant,” says Bradley, non-executive chairman of HSBC Bank Australia, Stockland Corporation, EnergyAustralia (Twitter @EnergyAustralia)and Anglo American Australia (Twitter @AngloAmerican). “Anyone with three or more substantial boards and one or two chairmanships would need at least a part-time personal assistant.”

    Moving from full-time work into a portfolio career might at first seem like the ticket to a less busy work life. But non-executive directors face their own time pressures and often juggle several different board roles instead of being able to focus on a single job as they might have done in their previous lives as executives.

    Most directors with a significant portfolio of boards have a personal assistant and some companies also provide some administrative help for directors. Many directors also do work not directly related to their various board roles, such as public speaking and mentoring aspiring directors, that will eat into their time.

    But PAs can only do so much. Directors also need to adopt their own strategies to ensure they use their time most effectively.

    As Australian Institute of Company Directors and iiNet chairman Michael Smith FAICD says: “Time is a highly perishable asset.”

    Malcolm Irving FAICD, a director of Abacus Property Group and chairman of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (Twitter @mymgsm), says managing a diary to attend scheduled board meetings presents no difficulties, but the biggest time management challenge is the meeting agenda and overly long board papers.

    Irving was recently preparing for an upcoming board meeting and was sent 135 pages of information ahead of the meeting (which, he adds, was not Abacus). “With the greatest respect, that was excessive for the business of the meeting,” he says. “Some management teams feel they have to supply a huge amount of data to keep the board informed, but quite often it is data without analysis or recommendations, which is not helpful nor efficient.”

    The agenda should fulfil the role of a strategic plan for the board meeting and be a mechanism for reporting against that plan, says Irving.

    Some directors can also be guilty of wasting other directors’ time.

    Irving says requests at a board meeting for extra information from an individual director can sometimes drag in other directors and end up eating their time. New directors, in particular, can be guilty of this as they seek to learn about the company. These requests are usually better made by arrangement with the chairman and the CEO prior to the meeting.

    Bradley says chairmen need to set the standard for what is expected in terms of the quality and length of board papers “to ensure that they’re crisp and focused on the real issues that directors will need to address to come to a sound decision”.

    “Every director should do due diligence on the company before they join the board, understand the style of the chairman, ask to have a look at some typical board papers. [They should also]check that they’re joining a board that receives quality work from management and not one that uses the board in effect as an adjunct to management,” he says.

    Ironically, smaller companies can be the most time-consuming for directors because they do not have clear processes to filter the issues that really need to go to the board from those that are really management issues.

    Many non-executive directors fail to clarify what is expected from them when they join a board and end up over-committing because they have not set boundaries.

    “A lot of time is wasted because there are no time engagement agreements,” says Tao de Haas (Twitter @TaodeHaas), a registered psychotherapist and an executive coach at Corporate XL.

    Directors usually work until the task is done. “So that’s what you have to look at. What is the job? Am I going outside my brief? What are the expectations and agreements?” de Haas says.

    He suggests directors do an audit of their time for, say, three weeks, noting how long is spent on each task. Once directors have a clear picture of how they use their time, they can assess whether they are doing so efficiently and where the “leakage” is.

    He also cautions against directors trying to eliminate all “non-productive time”. “They can sit back and reflect and think about things more,”
    he says.

    Regular board meetings do not usually present any time management issues. They are scheduled long in advance and so are easy to fit into a diary. But of course, an unexpected event – a transaction with a timeframe, a crisis or extra board work around an issue – can cause scheduling headaches for even the most organised company director.

    “Sod’s Law will generally apply. In ensuring that everyone is able to attend appropriately prepared and so on, someone is going to get squeezed,” says Diane Smith-Gander FAICD (Twitter @DianeSmithG), chairman of Transfield Services (Twitter @TransServices) and a director of Wesfarmers (Twitter @Wesfarmers).

    “And there is give and take – I know there have been times where my colleagues have pushed themselves to make sure that I’m able to attend so I know that there’ll be times when I need to do the same.”

    Distance and the need for travel can add
    to the difficulties of scheduling and attending even long-planned board meetings. As a Perth-based director, Smith-Gander has to be particularly organised.

    Late board papers can throw a schedule into chaos, particularly for someone like Smith-Gander who often has to travel to meetings and cannot read confidential board papers in the public confines of an aeroplane seat.

    “It’s clear that your time is not fungible – every hour is not the same as every other hour, so if someone is meant to provide you with materials at a particular time and they do not, that makes a carefully constructed schedule turn into something that is not so recognisable,” says Smith-Gander.

    “I try to ensure that I have enough time to read my board papers in privacy and then use plane time for reading that’s a bit more general and not confidential.”

    In other ways, the time difference can be a bonus. There is very little likely to be scheduled between 5 am and 8 am in Perth, but in Sydney and Melbourne that’s 8 am to 11 am (in summer) and so Smith-Gander says she can use this time to talk to people in the eastern states.

    “Sometimes I’ve been able to wiggle out of a potential conflict by using those hours,” she says.

    Some directors run into time management difficulties by not allocating enough time to familiarise themselves fully with the business, says Wendy McCarthy MAICD.

    That initial investment of time allows them to process board papers more efficiently and to make a more valuable contribution at board meetings.

    “We want them to process that information so they can be efficient in the use of their voice and their discussions and keep their more detached independent view,” says McCarthy, chairman of Headspace Youth Mental Health Foundation (Twitter @headspace_aus), Circus Oz (Twitter @circusoz), Pacific Friends of the Global Fund (Twitter @PacificFriends) and McGrath Estate Agents, and a director of Goodstart Early Learning and Child Care and Bentham IMF.

    Likewise, directors should delve into the business through an operational visit at least once a year so they do not waste the rest of the board’s time asking questions to which they should already know the answers.

    McCarthy says directors need to leave their egos at the boardroom door and recognise that the board is a level playing field.

    “Directors should be prepared to not just listen to the sounds of their own voices at a board meeting, but to be really strategic about their discussions and their interventions,” she says. “Pick and choose your issues – you don’t want to be the boy who cried wolf.”

    Where she chairs a board, McCarthy has the directors gather for a dinner before the meeting where everyone can catch up on news and have a general chat about the organisation in a social setting.

    That way, the board meeting can be focused solely on the organisation’s strategy rather than get diverted by extraneous matters.

    “We talk generally about the company so we are ready to be efficient in our time management the next day,” she says.

    Professor Peter Shergold AM FAICD has a wide range of directorships such as AMP (Twitter @AMP_AU), Veda Group (Twitter @Veda_AU) and Corrs Chambers Westgarth (Twitter @Corrslawyers). He also chairs several public service boards and acts as Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney (Twitter @UWSNews).

    The former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under John Howard sets time aside in his diary to prepare for meetings “so it becomes, in effect, built in”.

    Shergold says the biggest time wasters are those people who seek meetings with him, but do not have a clear idea of their purpose or how he might be able to help.

    “I’m wary of people who want to meet ‘just for a catch up’. I have often succumbed to that pressure and realised I have in effect wasted an hour and haven’t really helped the person who wanted the meeting or myself, and the difficulty is if you have a couple of those meetings in a day, you don’t just lose the hour, you lose a half hour on either side,” he says.

    “So I try to become more ruthless, even with meetings that individuals want, to have it clearly known in advance what the purpose of the meeting is and what the outcomes of that meeting are going to be.”

    Michael Smith FAICD (Twitter @mjs_michael), who along with iiNet (Twitter @iiNet) also chairs Synergy (Twitter @SynergyEnergy) and the Lionel Samson Sadleirs Group, and is on the boards of the Automotive Holdings Group, 7-Eleven stores (Twitter @7ElevenAus), Giving West and Creative Partnerships Australia (Twitter @CreativePships), avoids coffee meetings because they use up so much time.

    “People like to catch up on an issue. You’ve really nailed that in 10 minutes then it’s sitting around somewhere finishing a coffee when everybody would be better off getting back to it,” he says. “It’s much better to be on point - ‘what do we need, let’s exchange the information and get it done’.”

    Likewise, he never does lunch. “A catch up over lunch is two hours plus and I think that’s just a lot of very valuable time,” he says.

    “I don’t confuse business with friendship. When I’m doing something for friendship, it has 100 per cent of my focus, but when I’m doing business I like to get on with it.”

    Like other directors, Smith stresses the importance of preparation to ensure directors do not waste their own and others’ time.

    He blocks out a large chunk of every day to perform the core role of a company director – going over board papers, reflecting on issues, thinking about strategy and preparing for meetings for the organisations he is involved in.

    “I probably need four uninterrupted hours a day focused on thinking, reading, and considering options – and pollutants to that make me less effective. So you do have to turn your phone off, turn your email off and focus completely on what you’re doing.”

    How To manage your time better:

    • Get good help for menial, time consuming tasks.
    • Get to know the organisation well at the beginning.
    • Do thorough due diligence before you join a board.
    • Ensure management only sends useful information.
    • Be clear on your brief so you don’t go beyond it.
    • Audit your time to uncover tasks that waste time.
    • Avoid unproductive “catch ups”.
    • Block off time for core director tasks.

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