Thinking about moving to a portfolio career? Here’s what two experienced board members say you need to know

By David Donaldson

Monday March 9, 2020


Moving from an executive role onto a board means shifting from asking ‘how’ to ‘why’. Victorian EPA Chair Cheryl Batagol and CFA Board Member Gillian Sparkes offer their advice.

Dr Gillian Sparkes

You’ve spent years building up experience and now you’re thinking about taking on a new challenge and sitting on a board.

Hard work

It not an easy job, warns Gillian Sparkes, who began her non-executive career 16 years ago.

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“I always say to people who want to go to boards, don’t just think it’s a nice easy portfolio career. You need to bring your best game to boards in the same way you bring your best game to your executive career,” she argues.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into being a good board member — there’s a very big workload to get across the issues.”

Sparkes is currently chair of the board for FrontierSI, formerly known as the Cooperative Research Centre (or CRC) for Spatial Information. She’s on the board of the Country Fire Authority, Industry Capability Network Victoria and the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. She is also Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability.

“When I speak to people sometimes they want board roles for status recognition, or because they think it might be less demanding than an executive role. I tell people to be very cautious about those views. It’s just hard work like any other job and the stakes are high.”

Board versus management

The shift from executive to non-executive takes some getting used to. “You’re not management,” says Sparkes.

“For people just stepping in, the most difficult thing is to make that mental transition from being in the business to on the business. That’s what most of us have trouble with in our initial board roles. The first few years you can find yourself wanting to do management’s job. So differentiating your role and perspective from management’s is critical.

“I know of people who have found this transition very difficult and only realised after joining a board that they weren’t ready to exit their executive careers.

“If that happens it’s okay to decide to move back into executive roles and be part of the day to day operations. Just don’t think you can be involved like an executive for an organisation if you’re a board member.”

Do your homework

There is an increasing focus on risk for boards, she adds.

“Boards focus on strategy and risk — they take a helicopter view. As a director you need to understand your risk appetite when choosing which boards are for you. The buck stops with you. That’s why you need to work really hard to understand what’s going on in the business. It takes a lot of time, energy and effort.”

The other thing is that often different boards will have different levels of support, which will impact the role you can play.

“At some not-for-profits your board role might be a governance role, but they also might want you to work with the executive on particular areas where your expertise is valued and needed due to financial constraints.”

Sparkes recommends giving it a go, but you should go in with eyes open.

“It can be a lot of work, very rewarding, but not for the faint hearted.”

From how to why

Cheryl Batagol

A board role requires a different mindset to an executive job, says longtime Victorian Environment Protection Authority Chair Cheryl Batagol.

She has nearly 25 years’ experience on boards in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, is currently chair of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities and was previously Melbourne Water chair.

Instead of asking how, it’s about asking why.

“The question board members ask, even if they don’t say it out loud, is ‘why are we doing this? Why are we doing it this way?’”

It can be difficult for executives to wrap their heads around this change.

“It’s actually probably worse for mid-level managers who go directly into a board, because they’re used to taking a problem and finding a solution,” Batagol adds.

“We can make suggestions, but we’re not actually solving the problems for the exec. So it is a different way of thinking, and a different way of framing your thinking when you’re sitting around the table.”

The skills mix

Board members’ skills and experience — which Batagol regards as different categories when searching for new people — need to match the organisation, she explains.

Public administration experience is a key capability needed by many organisations.

There needs to be someone with a knowledge of legal practice — usually but not necessarily a lawyer. While she doesn’t believe specific stakeholders need to be represented on the board, at a regulator there should be someone who has experience of “what it feels like to be regulated”.

EPA needs a director with a knowledge of public health, and someone from who knows about local councils, a “critical co-regulator” for the agency. Finance and accounting “is a given”. As a science-based organisation, there should be someone with a science or engineering background.

“It’s a double bonus when I get someone who is a scientist or engineer who has experience of regulation, for instance,” she says.

It’s important there’s a good mix of skills and experience on boards, Batagol argues.

“My observation now, over more than 20 years, is that depending on your skills and experience, you enter the problem, and you see the problem, from a different angle,” she thinks.

“That richness in the diversity of thinking brings an outcome that is far better. It means you have very little groupthink — and you’re always aware of that.”

Making the jump

Batagol’s initial move into non-executive directorship started by chance.

It was 1996 and she was attending a conference on women in the waste sector, where she had spent her whole career, and was unaware she was sitting next to a backbencher.

“I made the comment that we need more women looking at waste governance. Not long after I was contacted by the department, which said we’re putting together a board for this new authority, it’s going to be called EcoRecycle Victoria — which was predecessor to Sustainability Victoria — and at the moment we have absolutely zero gender balance.

“… I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Not to be taken lightly

Like Sparkes, Batagol counsels those thinking about a portfolio career to realise it’s a proper job in itself.

“Governance roles are not to be taken lightly. They come with very serious accountability in the public, private and not for profit sectors by the regulators,” she says.

“I really like it, and I like that the portfolio covers private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Because you do think differently.

“What I would say is, particularly in the public and not-for-profit sectors, you’re not getting the same level of remuneration, so it is something that you bring your backpack of skills and capabilities to at a stage of life where you’re not supporting your family and mortgage, as you do in your younger years.”

“… It isn’t just something nice to do at the end of a career, it is actually another career.”

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