A boardroom crisis delivers lessons in leadership

At a time of concern about the number of women progressing to the ‘top job’, Anne Ward is a welcome exception. Of the 7 organisations of which she is a director, she chairs the majority of them.

Anne is chairman of Qantas Superannuation, one of Australia’s largest corporate superannuation funds which manages over $7 billion of retirement assets for its 33,000 members. She also chairs Colonial First State Investments, which manages over $100 billion of assets on behalf of around 2 million Australian investors. She is the chairman of both Zoos Victoria and The Centre for Investor Education, and director of MYOB, the Foundation for Imaging Research, and RMIT University.

In this week’s Success Story, Anne shares with Catherine Robson how the most challenging board crisis she’s faced led to a deeper understanding of what it means to lead effectively and why saying no to opportunities could be the best thing for your career.

After practicing commercial law for 28 years, Anne joined The Transport Accident Commission in 2000, her first serious board, where initially she struggled with the transition from the executive to the non-executive mindset.

“Up until that point, I had only really been doing professional services as a lawyer and that involves taking on people’s problems and solving them,” Anne recalls.

“The first few decisions that were made where I could see management say ‘Ok, well this is how we are going to implement it’ and I thought ‘No, that’s not how I would do it!’” she says.

“As a non-executive director, you’re not running the company, management are running the company. You’re there to govern, to support and challenge management but to empower them to make decisions.”

“I’ve been on boards where I’ve seen directors who I don’t think have quite made that transition. They think they’re running the company. It’s quite a delicate balance, between governance and actually managing.” she says.

Anne’s amazing portfolio of work has given her a wealth of experience in governance relations. She knows the importance of a high calibre chairman, no matter the industry.

“The chairman plays an incredibly important role in ensuring the board operates effectively, efficiently and makes good decisions in a timely manner but also as a bridge between the board and the executive team. That relationship between the chair and the CEO is critical in ensuring that the board works well.”

But Anne warns against blurring the lines of professionalism and friendship in these positions.

“You can’t be friends, because there may come a day when you have to ask that person to move on. It has to be professional and effective and close enough that either can pick up the phone at any time, but not so close that you’re friends,” she says.

Anne has navigated her fair share of boardroom challenges but one extremely difficult situation stands out, when she chaired a board that effectively became paralysed due to a conflict of interest.

“There were some deep concerns in the board about conflicts of interest that one director had. The director chose not to see that conflict” Anne recalls.  

“The board degenerated into 2 warring camps and my job as chairman was to try and find a way through the mess because the board literally could not meet.”

“I recognised it was probably an existential crisis for that organisation. If we couldn’t solve this then regulators would probably step in, and the company would probably have ceased to exist,” she says.

“I called an extraordinary meeting which at least got to a pause on the issue. That particular director agreed to step away and a few months later he resigned.”

“It was horrible. That meeting was probably one of the most challenging meetings I’ve ever been to, let alone chaired, in my life, but I learned so much about what being an effective chairman is,” says Anne.

When a crisis like this arises, unless you feel a strong connection and belief for the organisation you’re involved with, the rough times are really going to take a toll.

This one of the reasons Anne advises the professional women she mentors to be extremely selective about governance opportunities that come their way, to say no unless they are certain the role it a fit for them.

“Being a director is hard work and when there’s a crisis, which usually there is in most places at some point, it’s really hard work. You’ve got to have an affinity and a desire to help and make a difference and add value.” Anne advised.

“If you don’t have that affinity and a belief in the organisation and what it’s doing, its purpose and the people around the table with you, then I’d probably say don’t take it on. Don’t take it on just to fill your dance card,” she says.

In this podcast, Anne talks about her journey from a corporate lawyer to reinventing herself as a non-executive director and why emotional intelligence is the key to outstanding leadership.

Listen to the full podcast through the player above or subscribe on iTunes.