Commercial acumen and mutual respect have helped set the foundations for the young but successful relationship of UNICEF Australia’s chief executive officer and its president, writes Angela Faherty.
International humanitarian organisation, UNICEF, works in more than 190 countries to promote and protect the rights of children. As the world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, clean water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation and HIV.
Heading the Australian arm of the organisation is Dr Norman Gillespie, who has held the mantle of chief executive officer (CEO) since 2010. Working alongside an executive team and a board of directors headed by John Stewart FAICD, the organisation’s president, Gillespie is tasked with instigating growth of UNICEF Australia in terms of capacity and capability; fundraising, advocacy and lobbying, as well as instigating new strategic partnerships with international corporations.
Stewart, who has been on the board of UNICEF Australia as a non-executive director since 2005, stepped up to become the president of the organisation just 14 months ago. Acting as an important link between the board and the CEO, Stewart says the key to their young but successful partnership is allowing each other to get on with the job at hand.
“The organisation is extremely well run by Norman and his team, so my role is very much about a light touch,” he says. “Management have everything under control so my job is about reviewing the agreed strategy to ensure we stay on track, reporting back against our agreed measures and encouraging interaction between board members and management. It’s about allowing management to continue doing what they’re doing, and they are doing it extremely well at the moment.”
Gillespie agrees the key to success is allowing and respecting each other to do the jobs they have been tasked to do. He adds that prior experience about the workings of management and the boardroom has enabled his and Stewart’s working relationship to flow quite naturally.
“Being a chair of other not-for-profit (NFP) organisations allows me to appreciate the issues and pressures of managing a board while also running a high-powered team,” he says. “And because John is a businessman as well, that knowledge between us means we speak the same language very quickly,” he adds.
The key to success
Gillespie admits it’s a continuous juggling act to balance the needs of the board and senior management, but it is key to both a successful partnership and business.
“If you have highly skilled people on your board, you want to utilise that, but then again, you don’t want them second-guessing our highly skilled management team. We are always looking to balance that between us,” he says.
Stewart adds: “There’s a funny dynamic to my week where I will go to my executive team meeting and talk my head off and ask lots of questions, but when I get to the UNICEF board meeting, I have to remember that no-one is here to listen to me. I have to allow management to interact with the other board members.”
Stewart is the managing director of a large business process outsourcing company.
One of the key aspects of Stewart’s chairmanship Gillespie most admires is the disciplined approach he brings to board meetings. “I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings that meander on all day, but if the papers are well written and if they’re well read, then there’s no need to repeat everything they say,” he says.
“We do two hours,” adds Stewart. “We start on time and finish on time. One of the tricks is to ensure everybody has a say.”
Running a large NFP organisation is no mean feat, and both Gillespie and Stewart acknowledge the shifting demands in the sector. It is no longer enough to be enthusiastic or passionate about a cause. Today, NFP organisations also need to be commercially minded – skills that Stewart admires in his CEO.
“Norman brings a very deep business knowledge and experience to UNICEF,” says Stewart. “When he first started reporting to the board, I was impressed with the clarity of reporting, the depth of reporting and his way of thinking. I have actually been able to take some of those learnings back into my own corporate roles.”
He adds that under Gillespie’s reign, UNICEF Australia has greatly increased corporate governance control while simultaneously opening up the interaction between the board and management. “It’s been very successful in terms of the sense of control I have as a director, as well as the freedom we have to interact with the organisation and the other individual directors. It’s quite progressive,” he says.
Similarly, Stewart’s corporate experience means he is fully aware of the importance of efficiency in meetings and respect for best governance standards – a trait greatly admired by Gillespie.
“It can be really frustrating if a meeting is taken off track or if someone has a bee in their bonnet about something that is not on the agenda, but John is excellent at closing that down pretty quickly. He understands the importance of getting through certain pieces of business when decisions need to be made,” he says.
With an excellent working partnership in place, a key challenge facing the organisation is raising the profile of UNICEF here in Australia.
“We’ve got this amazing global brand in one of the richest countries in the world, so I know we could be a bigger entity here,” says Gillespie.
Growth for UNICEF Australia means doubling or tripling the company’s top line and also increasing its voice and influence with policy makers, as well as growing partnerships with leading companies, similar to those it currently holds with Qantas, MMG and Starwood Hotel Group.
Stewart says that one significant challenge is making companies understand that UNICEF delivers long-term outcomes. “Committing funds would be a fraction of many top organisations’ expenditure and could make an enormous difference throughout the region,” he says.
“There is a lot more that could be done to benefit the region, its children and even the corporations themselves. Australian corporates are starting to get a better understanding of what is needed, but they must understand that it is not about handouts, it’s about long-term change, it’s about sustainable programs, education and infrastructure,” he adds.
And what of the federal government’s cuts to foreign aid that have been condemned as political expediency? “It’s deeply, deeply disturbing,” says Gillespie.
“This is reflecting very badly on Australia. We are not being seen as standing up to our global citizenship responsibilities. The new cuts are savage and take us to 19th in the 28 OECD countries,” he adds.
Stewart agrees. “One of the long-term solutions to addressing the challenges the region faces is by investing as a country in the region. It is about developing our culture and character in conjunction with that region and these cuts are going exactly the opposite way.
“Australia is an island and if they think making us more of an island in this day and age is sensible in the long-term, then they’ve got me tricked,” he says.
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