Bernadette Uzelac

Bernadette has more than 25 years’ experience as a Board Director across various sectors including aged care, education, the arts, disability services, government, regional development and business. Bernadette’s executive career includes over 20 years as founder and Chief Executive of a successful recruitment and human resources company and, until early 2019, was Chief Executive of the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, a role she held for more than eight years before embarking upon a non executive director career path. In addition to her portfolio of board roles, Bernadette is a Senior Associate with Women into Leadership, facilitating corporate leadership development programs for women.
 

What boards AND COMMITTEES do you CURRENTLY sit on?

Latrobe Community Health Service, Victorian Small Business Ministerial Council (Chair), Geelong Tech School (Chair) and the Telstra Victorian Telecommunications Regional Advisory Council.

When and why did you decide to PURSUE BOARDS?

Over the past 25 years I have had the privilege of sitting on many different community and not for profit boards and committees in conjunction with my full time executive career. The experience of learning about new sectors, their challenges and opportunities, along with being able to give back to my community through my knowledge, connections and experience was enriching on so many levels. Sitting on boards with many senior, experienced directors enabled me to gain many new skills, enhancing my ability to contribute effectively to these boards and to also bring key learnings back to my executive roles for the benefit of my own organisation. The networks I built over many years of sitting on boards has served me well in taking the plunge earlier this year to establish myself in a professional board portfolio career. Having completed the AICD Company Director’s course in 2014, and having taken on various leadership roles with local boards, I felt the time was right to leave my executive role, after more than eight years as CEO of the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, to pursue my passion for governance and transition from an executive career to a board career.

WHAT challenges and hurdles HAVE YOU HAD TO OVERCOME IN PURSUING BOARDS AND/OR SERVING ON BOARDS?

I have learnt that pursuing board appointments is a long game and is one that is also highly competitive. It takes time to build a profile within the sector that you wish to pursue. It takes time and effort to connect with key influencers within your network and it takes a huge amount of time to research and immerse yourself into a new sector – all before even submitting an application! Being appointed to a board is not a quick, or necessarily, easy task. I’ve dealt with the disappointment of not being appointed to boards to which I thought I was a very strong fit. Even having the CEO and Board Chair as your referees does not necessarily guarantee your success! Understanding the political nature of boards, especially government boards, does help in overcoming disappointment. You may be a fantastic and eminently suitable candidate, but the relevant Minister may have other priorities for that board at that particular time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll never get a seat on that board.
Being able to succinctly articulate your value and strengths is not always easy. When I launched myself into a full time NED career path earlier this year I met with several executive search recruiters who specialise in board appointments. I very quickly learned that my executive CV was not suitable and that I needed to develop a very targeted board profile. The considerable time I spent in self-reflection was time very well spent. It helped me to define what I was looking for and to better articulate my value proposition. The challenges and hurdles I needed to overcome, in essence, were challenges and hurdles of my own making. Understanding myself better and being able to succinctly articulate that into ‘board speak’ has been immeasurable.

Have you had mentors and/or sponsors and have they helped you? if so, how?

Not formally, however there have been a number of people who have helped and guided me along the way at times when I’ve needed advice. Senior executives and key board directors within my network have been invaluable when I’ve needed their advice or opinion. I’ve found that people are only too willing to help if you ask them for advice or a referral. My network has been crucial in identifying opportunities, providing advice about particular board selection processes or industry information and in introducing me to key influencers within their networks.  

How did WOB help you in your journey to the boardroom?

One of the first things I did when I embarked upon my NED career journey was to join Women on Boards. The networking events featuring panel discussions of women talking about their board journey has been enlightening and has helped shape my perspective and expectations. Getting to know and share experiences with other women engaged in a similar journey has been so beneficial. I’ve also participated in WOB webinars which were very insightful and accessed WOB resources to develop my board profile. The weekly board vacancies listed on the WOB website have been an invaluable resource, and as a result of one of those listings I was successful in being appointed to my first health board!

ANY TIPS FOR WOMEN STARTING OUT ON THEIR JOURNEY TO THE BOARDROOM?

Take some time out for self-reflection and consider what your value proposition is and where you might best target your efforts. Consider joining a local community not for profit board or committee. Many such organisations are in constant need for board and committee members. Contributing to these organisations will help build your board skills and grow your network of established and influential leaders who may also sit on other boards. Enquire about joining a board sub-committee as a non-board member. Many boards, especially not for profit boards, seek external members to join board sub-committees to contribute specialist expertise and knowledge. Being on a board sub-committee is often a great pathway to joining the board proper as it provides visibility of your skills, value and fit to key decision makers. Joining a board sub-committee is a great way to gain knowledge and insights into the organisation, its culture, challenges and opportunities and provides you with an advantage when the board is next seeking to appoint new board members.
Be realistic with your expectations and timeline to achieve your goals. If you are employed, then offer to be the organisational representative on a local board or committee that may seek representation from your organisation. Many local government authorities and community groups are keen to have representatives from key local organisations represented on their taskforces, committees and other such groups. Undertaking the AICD Company Director’s course or similar governance qualification programs is an important aspect to building your skills and competencies as a board director. Participating in WOB webinars and professional development events, building an effective professional board profile and attending WOB networking events are also highly beneficial strategies that will help you in your journey to the boardroom.