What it means to be a board director right now and why women are essential

What it means to be a board director right now and why women are essential

We speak to prominent board director Andrea Staines OAM.

Appointed CEO of an airline at 38 and then transitioning to a full time board career just a few years later, this is how Andrea Staines made it happen. And how her role on four major boards has dramatically changed in just a few short weeks

Andrea Staines OAM has been a full-time board director for over a decade but the work she’s doing right now has never been more important.

Like much of the rest of the planet, she’s now doing that work from home, managing a constant stream of information regarding the four boards she works on including Acumentis, Freightways, SeaLink Travel and UnitingCare, which is Queensland’s largest employer and supports a wide range of vulnerable people.

The typical board meeting schedule and its frequent domestic travel has gone out the window, replaced with virtual meetings and a new frequency and urgency that requires board directors to be ever available to respond to the constantly changing health and economic crisis.

Ensuring women are at the board table is essential at any time, but particularly now as boards respond to COVID-19 and must ensure a wide range of conversations are raised for preparing for the future ahead.

Indeed, Andrea’s sat in numerous board meeting as the sole female board director throughout her career, and has noticed a difference in the issues women raise – along with how conversations can shift with more than one woman in the room.

I spoke to Andrea initially in late February, in the lead up to her keynote session at the Governance and Risk Management Forum 2020 in May. She had just returned to the Gold Coast from holidays in Western Australia and was preparing for a tennis lesson when we talk.

A lot has changed in the space of a few weeks.

The Governance Institute of Australia’s Forum event is no longer going ahead in person as planned, but Andrea will be speaking at their virtual event in May, sharing essential discussions on responding to the pandemic.

I was able to get an additional quick chat on the phone with Andrea just prior to publishing this piece to learn a little more about how her work’s also changed since our first conversation. She’s enjoying a ten minute break in a virtual board meeting when we talk, and notes how quickly board directors have adjusted to stay-at-home meetings.

She adds that the shift to virtual meetings is their smallest challenge.

Right now, boards need to respond to the health and economic crisis as it’s unfolding – while also planning for the medium and long term.

“The challenge has been to ensure that not only are you talking about next week, but that you’re still talking about the medium and long term,” she says.

One significant, medium-term challenge for those organisations that are delivering essential services, including supermarkets, hospitals and disability care, and those that are ramping up their staff members, will be how they return to business as usual with an exhausted workforce.

Another medium-term challenge will be how businesses eventually emerge from social distancing.

“As a board director, you trust that you’ve put in a capable CEO and senior leadership team and they are dealing with the short term challenges, as a board director you have to be dealing with the medium and long term.”

Andrea adds the need to refer to risk management frameworks has never been greater, and all boards must ensure major decisions come with a risk matrix attached, especially as major decisions are being made quickly.

How does women’s participation at the table affect these conversations? While Andrea says she can only generalise, she believes women help ensure more conversations about consumers, employees and suppliers are made regarding the immediate and future response, along with more questions about ethical decision making.

How do you start a board career?

Prior to her board career, Andrea achieved a number of remarkable firsts: including becoming Australia’s first female airline CEO when she took on the role of the then Australian Airlines at the age of just 38.

She left her executive career behind at the of 41, after being offered a redundancy package and using it as a financial runway to pursue board roles. At the time, she needed flexibility, as a sole parent with two young children.

That board career has supported her family ever since. While she says she still worked full time during that initial period and took a significant pay cut, she found the flexibility in having a set board schedule and being able to read boards papers and complete other board work in her own time, rather than adhering to a ridged Monday to Friday schedule.

Andrea says her path to a portfolio board career is not one that she would necessarily advise other women in executive positions to follow.

Rather, she suggests making the transition while you’re still an executive – it will give you the time, space (and money) you need to make it happen, and also provide an opportunity to decide if the boardroom really is the right place for you. “For some people it’s not. Some people would prefer to start their own business, or to focus on not for profits or other work,” she says.

She also adds  treating a boards search as you would when looking for an executive role. Get methodical, invest time and money in meeting people both from search firms and the business side directly.

“Getting a job is having a job. You have to work on it,” she says. “You have to be resilient.”

She cautions against believing that local and community boards will be an easy path to getting the experience you need to get on ASX boards. “The best time to go onto the board of your local surf lifesavings club is not as your first board, but your tenth one. You can have a large drag on your time or be highly exposed if those boards are running inefficiently.”

She suggests significantly-sized not-for-profits at the state and national level have excellent roles, along with government boards – which move a little slower than elsewhere, giving you a better chance to learn how a board works, especially when the focus is on operations, on efficiencies and delivering good customer service, not about raising revenue 365 days a year.

While Andrea hasn’t had official ‘mentors’, she does sound people out for advice, and from her own experience believes many of us may be pleasantly surprised by our own network.

“When you list your network, parents in the dance club, the schools board, your local accountant, the professionals in your town, there are so many people you can get a coffee with to get advice about being a board director. They may or may not be board directors, but when you have that coffee, you can ask them to give you the names of one of two people they think you should meet and then ask if you can use their name to set up the coffee. It’s about being methodical,” she says.

“Talk about focussing on what industries you want to be in, but don’t constrain yourself to any particular type of board.”

Andrea is speaking at the Virtual Governance and Risk Management Forum 2020, on Monday 11 and Tuesday 12 May 2020. The event examines the impact of COVID-19 on organisations across all sectors, with the Governance Institute using the opportunity to provide information, resources and the most effective discussion forums to best support leaders respond to this evolving crisis.

View the line-up for the first-ever Virtual Governance and Risk Management Forum.

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