The importance of knowledge

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Leon Gettler photo
Leon Gettler

    For Elizabeth Proust and Jane Bennett, taking part in a mentoring program has helped the established and aspiring directors learn from each other. Leon Gettler reports.

    On first impressions, Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD and Jane Bennett FAICD could not be more unalike, they come from completely different worlds.
    Proust is the chairman of Nestle and Bank of Melbourne. She also sits on the boards of financial services company Perpetual and Insurance Manufacturers Australia. An Officer of the Order of Australia, she has served as managing director of the Esanda Group and group general manager of HR and corporate affairs at Australian and New Zealand Banking Group. She has worked as secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and chief executive officer of the City of Melbourne.

    Bennett sits on the board of the ABC and CSIRO. She also has directorships with Brand Tasmania Council, the Australian Farm Institute and the Tasmanian Ports Corporation. She also worked as managing director of Ashgrove Cheese, a family owned and run business in Tasmania.

    Vital contact

    Proust lives in Melbourne, Bennett in Launceston, Tasmania, but after Proust became Bennett’s mentor 18 months ago through the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ (AICD’s) mentoring program, which matches experienced chairmen and directors with female directors or aspiring directors, they haven’t looked back.

    The contact between the two has been mostly done on Skype, usually once a month. For Bennett, it’s been a life-changing experience.

    “One of the benefits of the relationship for me was that my background has been in food processing and agriculture, which are both very male-dominated industries. I have spent most of my working life with men so finding someone like Elizabeth as a mentor from a personal perspective has been beneficial,’’ Bennett says.

    “The role models, managers and people I have worked with have been men, so to have a successful woman as a mentor as well as a more female perspective is different from what I have normally experienced.

    “But I think it is really useful for me, as you get a very different perspective from women than from men in their personal take on life.

    “I am also at a phase where I have a small child, I am more focused these days on that balance between work and family. Not that I was bouncing stuff like that off Elizabeth, but sometimes it’s just reassuring.”

    Common ground

    Proust said the differences between the two were not important, what was critical was the chemistry between them and the commonality of issues.

    “While Nestle is different from the Bank of Melbourne and CSIRO, the issues around the strategic role of a director, issues around becoming a better director and about extending your network, are pretty common,’’ Proust says.

    She adds that having a common approach to directorship and learning is more important than similar industry backgrounds.

    “If I think about the people I have met either through the AICD programs or formally or informally over the years, it really doesn’t matter what industries they come from or what industries they end up being on the board of, there is a common skill directors need to have regardless of the subject matter,” she says.
    Bennett says she has explored a number of issues with Proust, all of which have helped with her development.

    “Some of the stuff I have worked with Elizabeth on was the process of identifying the boards you want to work with,’’ she says. “She was a great sounding board for the process of looking at boards and going for interviews,” she says.

    Bennett adds that having a mentor is also good when facing personal challenges. While these may not be related to the boardroom itself, working through any problems means a resolution can be found.

    “Elizabeth was also a great sounding board when I faced some difficult issues in particular areas I was working in. She gave great advice on how to tackle challenges.”

    Networking skills

    Bennett said Proust has also helped her with networking, a skill that proved useful given that her previous employment experience meant her contacts were different to the  average director.

    “Life is about networks and when you have spent 17 years working in a paddock in the middle of Tasmania, you have a slightly different network than the average director,’’ she says. “So Elizabeth was able to create a whole lot of opportunities for me to network.”

    Bennett says that what has made the relationship work has been having clear objectives around every conversation.

    “You can sit down and have a pleasant chat with someone or you can have an objective of what is it that I want to get out of this conversation,’’ she says.

    “Some mentor-mentee relationships involve formal agendas and quite structured conversations. That wasn’t what Elizabeth and I had. That’s because in our relationship we found a way of communicating without having the need for that level of formality.”

    One thing that Bennett did acknowledge was the time dedicated by Proust to help her with her directorship career. Time is money, as they say, and Bennett is aware how fortunate she was to have an experienced mentor advising her.

    “I think as a mentee it’s really important to respect the person who is mentoring you. They are giving up their time and very generously offering you the opportunity to get value from their experience. It’s important you enter every conversation with a known objective.”

    Mutual respect

    When asked what makes a good mentor, Bennett is concise in her response. “A good mentor is someone who is willing to share knowledge, share contacts and share the benefit of their experience,’’ she says.

    Both Proust and Bennett agree that what’s crucial to the relationship is chemistry, trust and respect. Bennett says that’s something that allows the relationship to continue after the mentoring is over.

    Proust says the mentor should also get a lot out of the relationship. “I’ve been formally mentoring people, mostly women, for more years than I care to count, but I think you always learn from the relationship. It’s not a one-way thing. You are generally dealing with somebody of a different generation, who is younger and has a different perspective,’’ she says.

    Proust adds that one of the greatest things she receives from being a mentor is staying informed. “You will learn something from all the people you have contact with. Similarly,  you’re giving something back as a more senior director. It keeps you current because as much as you read and keep up with the issues, you tend, especially at busy times of the year, to be pretty focused on your own company.”

    Proust says the best mentees are the ones who want to learn. “It needs to be somebody who wants more than access to your network. If their focus is all about getting 10 contacts or 10 headhunters or senior directors, then they haven’t understood the nature of the program.

    “It has to be somebody who genuinely wants to learn and who puts time into thinking about it,” she adds.

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