Fiona Jolly’s 10 tips on Crafting a Board Portfolio


Experienced Chair, NED, CEO and lawyer with significant experience across advertising, media, sport and rural sectors , Fiona Jolly has a diverse experience on boards that oversee everything from residential aged care and radiation to cemeteries and stationery supplies.


Starting out her professional career as a graduate lawyer in the public service in Canberra then heading up the Advertising Standards Bureau, Fiona Jolly's board career started, as she says “cutting her teeth” on not-for-profit boards including YWCA Canberra and YWCA Australia where she became National President just six months after giving birth to twins. Her experience on these boards, who were incredibly supportive and committed to mentoring young women, ignited her love of governance and Board work. 

A testament to resilience, patience and hard work, Fiona says when thinking about on her board pathway she divides the journey into three ‘phases’ of building a sustainable portfolio, from just ‘thinking about it’ and ‘working on it’, to ‘actually doing it’. 

“I'm the example of someone who took a very long, hard path to the boardroom. I’m not someone who has walked into any of my Board roles easily,” Fiona said.

In a recent WOBChat Fiona reflected on how she built up her board portfolio while juggling executive roles and raising four children, the value of professional development and being part of the first WOBSX syndicate, and why persistence pays off.  As she says: ““You can think about being on boards, but unless you actually make a substantial effort to do something it doesn't necessarily come through.”

Watch Fiona talking about her board career HERE.

Embrace the diversity

My board career started when I was recruited to the YWCA of Canberra when I was 25. I was recruited as a young woman specifically because they were trying to increase the number of young women in their organisation. If you get asked to join a board, don't ever feel cross that you're just being appointed to tick off diversity on the Board skills matrix. It's really a fabulous opportunity to join a board and you are then in a position to pave a way for people like you to come afterwards. 

When it came to applying for the ACT Cricket board, I reached out to the Chair through LinkedIn as I'd heard they were looking for women – I was an active member of the ACT Cricket Community with four boys playing. People who are trying to get women on boards of organisations that don't have a lot of women do really appreciate it if you reach out, because it makes it easier for them to find women when their existing networks may not have suitable people. I presented them with a solution, which was; here's a qualified legal person, who happens to be a woman who can fit on your board. And I got the role.

Identify the gaps

WOBSX helped identify gaps in my value proposition. Once I'd identified those gaps, it helped me identify what I should be applying for to help fill those gaps. For example, I realized that even though I'd been a CEO of a national industry body, it was a body that only had a budget of $3 million, and I only had 20 staff. When people are recruiting, they're quite often looking for how many staff have you been looking after, how big is the turnover of the organisation, and what value of assets are you controlling? I really didn't have a track record of being able to say that I had experience in big businesses. 

I also realized that while I thought that being the president of the YWCA of Australia and Australian Business Volunteers were fabulous roles, they weren't organisations that struck a chord with any recruiters. So I thought, what do I need to do differently, where might the opportunities be and started to identify sectors where I could get a bit of a foothold, such as sporting boards - as I have four boys who were all into sport. This led to roles on the boards of Ainslie Football Club and Cricket ACT.

Keep up the professional development

I left my executive role mid-2020. Being unemployed in COVID gave me the time to start focusing on how to achieve some good board roles. I submitted a lot of applications, networking (as much as could be done during COVID) and professional development on governance issues, cyber security, ethics etc - ramping up my CV so people could see that I was a well-rounded governance expert. By the end of 2020 I had been recruited to both the board of CHOICE and as an elected councillor of HCF (both volunteer roles). Even though they weren't paid roles, they met my need of being involved in the governance of larger organisations, with significant income, staff and assets, along with being in highly regulated or significant policy areas.

Don’t give up

Sometimes persistence pays.I identified a large residential aged care organisation which I was interested in joining as aged care is such an important issue for Australians and families. I also knew that this board paid members and I ran for election three years in a row. The fourth year I was successful only because one of the candidates pulled out of the election so I was able to do, as my neighbor says, a ‘Steven Bradbury’, and be elected to the board. Resilience is the biggest thing in building a board portfolio because there can be a lot of rejection along the way.

Do your homework when networking 

When it comes to networking, it’s about doing your homework and also taking opportunities when they come up. If you’re at a networking event or a lunch, do some work to see who's there and make the effort to introduce yourself. It’s really hard, but it does make a difference. Be prepared for those corridor or lift conversations. On LinkedIn, reach out to those ‘friends of friends’ and make the connection. Very few people say no. If they do, they're probably not going to be much help to you anyway. 

Sell your skill set

I recently had coffee with a man who is a director of a number of ASX companies. I was telling him about the type of board I was interested in, and he said “I wouldn't have thought you had the skill set for that”. I spent the rest of the day feeling quite low. I woke up the next morning and thought, “no, hang on, that was my fault. I did not sell my skill set and what I would bring to that sector well enough. No wonder he couldn't see a fit.  And so I sat down and thought, okay, this is my sales pitch. I'm going to make it clear exactly why I belong in that sector.”

Don’t be put off by the job description

Always put in an application if a role sounds interesting. You never know - they might see that you have something they didn’t realise they needed.

Make sure the board is the right ‘fit’

Once you've got an interview do your due diligence to find out more about the board and if they'd be the right fit for you. At the interview stage, try to find out as much about them - make sure you can work with them because you do spend a lot of time with people that you just may not get on with. You want to try and work that out early. You don’t want to start on a Board and realise that it isn’t the right fit for you.

Be genuine

One of the things I learned from going through a phase of doing a lot of interviews, is don't try and pretend to be someone you're not. Just be who you are in a business professional sense. If they don't like you, then that's not the right board. 

Give yourself a break

When you join a board, don't feel bad about listening hard for the first few meetings. People will expect you to just listen for a while. DO the classic “ask the dumb question” thing sometimes. You don't need to walk into your first meeting expecting to be across everything, because you just won't be if it's a complex business.

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