Dr Catherine Burrows PhD, MA TESOL, BA (Hons), Dip. Ed, GAICD

Catherine Burrows is a strategic thinker who brings forensic insight to problem solving. A reformer with sophisticated stakeholder management skills, she brings a collaborative ethos to her work. Her focus is on improving organisational performance at the individual, group and organisational levels.
Catherine is a member of the TAFE NSW Western Region Advisory Council. Prior to this she was a member of the Community Reference Group for the Centre for Health Record Linkage.
Catherine is the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting. Recent Innoverum projects include:

  • preparing strategic and business plans for an NGO; and a business analytics framework for a major tertiary institution
  • developing the Treaty education discussion paper and associated documents for the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group
  • preparing TAFE Western’s Reconciliation Action Plan and Aboriginal Employment Strategy
  • delivering strategic and business planning and performance improvement workshops.

Catherine also works as an executive coach and mentor. Her clients have included senior staff of leading tertiary education providers; state and local government agencies; an NGO; and a major media company.
Catherine was a member of the NSW Government’s Senior Executive Service for five years, as Executive Director TAFE NSW Strategy and Finance. She had overall responsibility for TAFE’s $1.8B budget, state-wide strategic policy, planning and reporting. She was inaugural chair of TAFE’s Finance and Audit Committee and was selected as a top NSW public sector innovator.
Her proudest achievement in TAFE was leading the process which increased the proportion of students graduating with higher level qualifications, particularly Aboriginal students, making TAFE NSW’s completion rates the highest in Australia.
Following her 30-year public service career, she was awarded the Education Department Medal, for service to students, and the prestigious TAFE Medal, awarded only occasionally to senior staff who make a particularly significant contribution to TAFE NSW.
Catherine began her career as a teacher of English to adult immigrants. Following successful assessment and international testing projects, she became Manager of Staff and Curriculum Development. Next came a series of policy roles, including advisor to two Education Ministers.
Catherine undertook a Masters in TESOL at UTS and was invited to lecture casually on this program as soon as she completed it. She completed a PhD at Macquarie University, during which she was awarded the Halliday prize. Her research results were published in textbooks and conference papers.

What boards do you currently sit on?

I sit on the Regional Advisory Committee of TAFE NSW Western Region, to which I was appointed this year. I applied for this because of my lifelong interest in post-school education, my interest in working with and for Aboriginal Peoples, and because I admire the work of this organisation.

When and why did you decide to become a director?

I did the AICD Company Directors’ Course when I was an Executive Director in the NSW Public Service, because I reported to a Board and wanted to understand how to do this better. This is where my interest in board directing started. When I left the NSW Public Service, I opened my own consulting business and explored directorship opportunities, including through Women on Boards. My first position was with the Community Advisory Committee for the Centre for Health Record Linkage.

What are your short and medium-term board aspirations?

I would most like to find another board which would use my skills as a strategist and in working effectively with government. I think the current Advisory Committee which I sit on will give me great opportunities to do this. I would like to find a second one, perhaps in a different field.

Outline your career background.

I am CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting. Our focus is on business improvement at the individual, group and organisational levels and this includes mentoring, policy work, and business and strategic planning. I started my career teaching English to adult migrants. My first students were refugees from all the war-torn places of the world at that time: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Lebanon to name a few. They were inspiring and astonishingly resilient people. I moved into curriculum development and staff development, assessment and, after completing my doctorate, into government policy work, all within post-school education. This led to a period working for two Ministers for Education and I completed my public service career as the Executive Director, TAFE NSW Strategy and Finance, a position equivalent to a Chief Operating Officer in the private sector.

Touch on the challenges and hurdles that have presented themselves, either being on or getting onto a board, and how you overcame them?

I think the critical challenge for me was in recognising that board directorship is a different kind of job. It’s not the same as reporting to a board. I had to learn to let go of operational management and focus on strategy, governance and oversight. Luckily, my Executive Director position had a very strong strategic focus, which has helped me enormously.

Are there any directors/leaders you look up to? Why?

Right at the moment, I think everyone is looking up to Jacinda Ardern. I am so full of admiration for the way she has managed the appalling tragedy in New Zealand, as well as the way she has managed herself. I think we all have something to learn from her response to this criminal attack on her people.

Have you had mentors and sponsors and how have they helped you in your career?

I have been very lucky in having several excellent mentors during my career. They include a manager who showed me how to work in a policy environment – then a completely new field for me. Another was a very courageous leader, someone who encouraged me to apply for increasingly high level positions. Her belief in me gave me self-confidence. A third was a wonderful leader who set the tone for the organisation I worked in, always encouraging and always looking for better performance from his executives. I have also been lucky to work with several amazing colleagues, who are leaders in their own right.

What is the diversity (gender & other) like on your boards?  If you sit on a mix of diverse and non-diverse boards, what differences have you noticed? 

The advisory committees I have been on have been quite diverse, as was the board I reported to.

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

I did the introductory course that Women on Boards holds, Getting Started. After this, Ruth was great in helping me set out my skillset in a way that speaks to people searching for board directors. She has been very encouraging and I really appreciate this.

Any tips for women starting out in their career?

Make sure you apply for a position that you will find really interesting in an organisation you will feel proud to be part of.

Any other comments or insights?

I have been on both sides of the board table and I’ve seen that it’s so important for board directors to take the time to listen to the people from the organisation who are presenting to you. You may find that the people who are less polished in their presentation skills are more genuine in what they have to tell you.