Scholarly pursuits: Why the boardroom was the next step for PhD candidate Dr Rosemaria Flaherty 

Child protection expert Dr Rosemaria Flaherty is an award-winning, highly regarded leader, senior operations manager and senior psychologist in the child protection, mental health, domestic violence, and health sectors. Rosemaria has combined her deep industry expertise and advocacy with ongoing academic research into the role of the unborn child high risk birth alert in connecting at-risk pregnant women to health and social care.

A recent board member, Rosemaria embarked on her board journey two years ago, upon completing her PhD, and now sits on two boards combining her interests in child protection and the tertiary education sector - Act for Kids and UniSA Justice and Society Academic Unit Board.  Based in Grafton, northern NSW, Rosemaria is also an avid koala-spotter who fell in love with the iconic marsupial after doing a geography project on them in high school.

When and why did you decide to pursue boards?

I decided to look for board roles in 2020. There were two main reasons; I wanted to give back in a form I hadn’t pursued previously and also I was at the end point in my PhD, so was anticipating having a lot more time available to invest in something other than the PhD once I had finalised my thesis. Board membership seemed to be a good next step that was easy to incorporate into my day and allowed me to continue to grow.

Tell us about the boards you joined.

I’m on two Boards and two committees; the Act for Kids Board and the associated Human Rights Committee and First Nations Committees; and the University of South Australia (UniSA) Justice and Society Academic Unit Board. Act for Kids is an Australian for-purpose organisation that delivers evidence-led professional therapy and support services to children and families who have experienced or are at risk of harm.

I applied for the Act for Kids Board due to my life-long commitment to the field of prevention of and response to violence, abuse, and neglect. I was a PhD student with UniSA, as well as having worked previously at the UniSA Australian Centre for Child Protection  – hence the interest and connection with the UniSA Justice and Society board.

What areas of expertise do you feel you bring to your boards?

I have deep industry experience which helps me to understand risk, governance, and strategy in the violence, abuse, and neglect field. Having four tertiary qualifications, completed by on-campus and external modes from four different universities, gives me broad student experience in the tertiary education sector. It also gives me knowledge of what some universities do differently and better compared to other universities. Having varied experiences across your industry is very helpful to board roles as it brings different perspectives to the same issue which can only improve decisions and outcomes. 

What challenges and hurdles have you had to overcome in getting on boards?

Although there are hundreds of board positions advertised, the process of landing one of those roles is extremely competitive, which is challenging. But before you even start, being clear in your own mind about which opportunities you want to pursue and having a plan for doing so is critical. This is perhaps obvious, but I underestimated how much time I would need to refine my approach to deciding which type of boards I would apply for, and how I would go about doing that. In the end, a challenge for me was also choosing which opportunity to accept when you’ve applied for two boards concurrently and are highly interested in both organisations!

What do you most like about your board roles?

A big motivator for me is the opportunity to give back so I like knowing that I have contributed to positive outcomes for the organisations I am involved with. I like the networking in board roles. You meet some truly inspirational and phenomenal people. I enjoy the stimulating material you get to read as a board member and processes you are exposed to as part of board and committee business. While board and committee roles are a significant amount of work and responsibility, they also provide opportunities to be part of things that break new ground via collective action. I find this exciting.

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

I have been fortunate to be mentored by senior women who have provided me advice, been referees, and done practical things like mock interviews to practice challenging questions you might get asked during a board interview. This is very important for people like me who are only a few years into their board journey. As most are aware, applying for a board role requires a different mindset and approach compared to interviewing for an executive role. The practical support and encouragement provided by mentors has been crucial to my success. My own measure of paying it forward in the future will be to provide that same help to other women who are at the start of their board journey.

How has WOB helped you on your board journey?

WOB provides resources, courses, webcasts of esteemed women from all industries and walks of life discussing how they utilise their life and professional experience in their board role, advertisements of board vacancies, and access to associates of WOB, such as The Social Index. I found The Social Index invaluable in understanding how your digital footprint reflects your reputation, level of influence and network value from an outsider’s perspective. I’m still not the best at maximising my digital footprint to the extent I could (there’s a real knack to it), but without WOB, I would not know The Social Index existed!

What are the most useful skills you have gained which have helped in your board career?

Definitely governance skills, data interpretation via my research skills, the ability to build and maintain trusting relationships, and knowing the difference between oversight and interference. Due to my love of innovation, I also think the skill of noticing where an appropriate growth opportunity exists is a key attribute that helps in a board career. I’ve also completed the AICD course in Governance Foundations for Not-For-Profit Directors which was valuable for both its content but also the ability to network with other not-for-profit directors.

Any words of advice for other women starting out in their board journey?

Craft your CV to a board CV, rather than an executive CV; know what your value proposition is, and let people know you are interested in joining a board. Have an answer to the ‘why’ question of why you want to be on the board you are applying for. I found following board-related content on social media and joining membership organisations like WOB greatly helped my journey. I know the ‘get your board CV ready’ is not a unique piece of advice, but you’d be surprised at how tricky that is until you get used to packaging your skills, experience, and qualifications in that way.

Can you tell us something other people might not know about you?

I am an avid koala spotter. For the koalas that live where I live, I track their grazing and breeding habits, and support koala causes. I fell in love with koalas after doing a geography project on them when I was at high school. To this day, I have the photo of the taxidermy koala I was allowed to borrow from the National Parks and Wildlife preservation service as part of my school presentation. I still haven’t worked out the difference between koala and goanna claw marks on trees though!