Get on board as a company director

By Wendy Gray

Dianne Hill’s Facebook feed tends to fill her friends with envy. She is often out of town for the weekend – or off on some exotic overseas holiday.  Looks like she’s got way more “free time” than the rest of us, so I was interested to find out how she does it.

Life as a Company Director 

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For the past nine years Dianne’s main focus has been as a Company Non-Executive Director. She is a board member and Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee for COACT Limited, a board member of AccessUTS and is on six other NSW Government Audit and Risk committees. These are all part-time, paid positions that give her a steady income and the freedom to do what she wants. She landed her first board role, the Australian Consumers Association, 25 years ago and has been consistently on boards and committees ever since. That first board appointment was no picnic however– “at the AGM the outgoing Chairman wouldn’t even speak to me” but Dianne is made of strong stuff and she persisted.

The convenient thing for Di about this type of work is she can plan her holidays a long way in advance.  “Over a 12 month period all the meetings I’ll have to attend are scheduled, so I can plan my life around them. I know by October of the previous year my diary for the whole of the next year”.

Of course, being on a board is not just about cashing cheques and turning up to meetings. “For each meeting I would have a minimum of one day prep time and then there’s out-of-session work if there’s a particular issue running”.  Dianne diarises when she does the prep, locks in the meetings and then starts planning her trips. Recently she’s been to the Cote D’Azur and Morocco, and coming up is Portugal, Egypt and Thailand. Not to mention the mini breaks to Byron bay and Adelaide.

How to get on board

Dianne’s advice to anyone who is interested in board positions is to play the long game – the lead time to get a position is much longer than you’d imagine. Then, when you’re in the role you are there for at least 8 years, so you need to choose carefully what you take on. Because of the long tenure, turnover is low so positions on desirable boards don’t come up that often. The whole push to get more women on boards is not going to change things overnight because of the slow turnover. And it is highly competitive; “at the end of the day, they are looking at how you will fit the organisation, how the current board works together and the board dynamics”.

“I have lots of coffee dates with people who want a board role and my first question is: “How much money do you need to live on?”. A not-for-profit will have between 5 and 7 members and the average annual payment for a NFP board place is $20k with fringe benefit tax benefit depending on the nature of the NFP. Chair of an Audit and Risk Committee will get $20k, a member will average $10k. It’s not a fortune but it works for Di because she consistently has multiple positions at the same time.

Do your homework

Another piece of advice is to make sure you know what you are jumping into – do your due diligence before you join an organisation – find about the Chair, Directors, Executive, the culture and take a close look at the financials. Try to ascertain their sophistication in terms of the role of the board. According to Dianne “some organisations seem to expect board members to do unpaid work that you would normally expect executives to do. There should be no crossover between a board role and a management role – you don’t want to be there as the unpaid marketing or fundraising person as this isn’t in line with your corporate law responsibilities and good governance The Boards role is oversight.”

“In many ways it’s quite different to what people imagine – you are part of a collective decision-making group – so no one has more power than another. You have equal responsibility, but you are held individually responsible under Corporations Law. You are the highest decision-making body in that company – it’s a very interesting work environment”.

It’s not for everyone

A couple of other warning flags: it’s got to be a gig you really want to do, because you are going to be on this organisation with these people for a long period of time. “It will be three times more work than you imagine. You might look at the annual report – see that the board meets 6 times a year, and the Audit & Risk committee has 4 or 5 meeting on top of that. But you don’t know, for example, that the company may have spent 2 years warding off a takeover, or had protracted difficulties getting rid of a CEO. There are a multitude of issues which could occur that you’ll never read about in the press or the annual report. When you are on a board you can’t say: “I’m really sorry I’m busy with something else”. If there is an issue running you are required to be there. And the other thing is, being a company director can be very lonely because you have to abide by confidentiality rules - so you can’t chat about work with anyone.

The rewards are there

Another upside is that the work can be incredibly interesting and challenging. You can be involved in businesses and organisations that you would normally have no insight into. For example, Dianne went to India and Vietnam with one board, to see how that part of the business operated. You get to work with people who perhaps you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to work with, but you have to work together in a highly professional and effective way. Being able to give advice and commercial acumen/experience in a difficult situation that can help resolve something or prevent something bad happening gives a high degree of satisfaction. And when things go right, you can circle back to your values and say “collectively, we’ve achieved this.”

Professional acknowledgment is certainly one of the upsides of life for Dianne. UTS recently made her an Honorary Fellow of the University for her services to the Business community – a long way from the working -class girl who left school at 15. She chooses organisations that align with her values, and while her current appointments go out to 2021, there’s no doubt she’ll be taking on new roles: “My problem is I have to learn when to say no!”. At a time where older single women in Australia are emerging as a cohort of disadvantage, Dianne (who is turning 64 this year) owns 3 1/3 properties, has a healthy whack of superannuation, and the money to do what she wants. She successfully negotiated her way through two post-relationship financial settlements – often a turning point in the economic journey of older women - and it doesn’t hurt that she’s an accountant by training so savvier than some about personal finance. When her daughter Laura was small, Di set up an Investment Club with friends. None of them had any idea what they were doing, but slowly, they worked it out. Subsequently they published two successful books based on their experience - The Money Club and Financially Fit for Life

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What’s next?

Dianne is in fact planning to live to at least 90, and to make her work fit around her long bucket list of fun. Apart from travelling (a lot) there’s art classes, dance classes, volunteer work, her super active social life, theatre, films, and family. “Mostly it’s about having freedom…to not be completely exhausted at the end of the day as I did in full time work - where you come home, have a glass of wine, cook dinner, supervise homework, put on a load of washing and crash. You are in a constant state of exhaustion.” Now living alone in a comfortable inner-city apartment, she’s revelling in that freedom. “If it’s a cold morning I can have breakfast in bed, read the paper, do my emails, set up the work I’ve got to do for the day – and feel slightly smug not having to rush off to the office.  “Yes, I can see myself working to 70 or beyond. I’m just really happy with my life”.