Evelyn Horton 


MME_Horton_Evelyn.jpegEvelyn is a full-time company director, specialising in public policy, risk management and finance. She spent thirty years as an executive: 12 years at the Reserve Bank and the Commonwealth Treasury; and 15 years in investment banking. Evelyn’s banking experience includes six years in mergers and acquisitions; and eight years in risk management at Macquarie Bank, where she held leadership positions across a range of non-financial risks - regulatory, operational and compliance. Evelyn is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and sits on a number of boards and advisory committees in the private and public sectors.

What boards do you sit on currently?

Centuria Life, Motor Accidents Insurance Board, Tasmanian Public Finance Corporation, Mission Australia and MLC Superannuation Trustees (til 30 June). I’m also a member of two advisory committees - SMART Advisory Council, associated with the University of Wollongong, and the Diocesan Financial Advisory Task Force of the Anglican Church. I was formerly director and chair of Mission Australia Housing.

When and why did you decide to become a director?

The role of the board is to take a big-picture view across the whole organisation, identify themes and patterns, and make decisions for the good of the whole organisation. The buck ultimately stops with the board. The knottiest problems and the biggest decisions come to the board. By the time I left executive life in 2012 to become a full time non-executive director, I had been in the professional workforce for 30 years. I’d started at the Reserve Bank as a 17 year old bursary student, and I’d had a fulfilling career in executive life. Moving into non-executive life felt like a natural career progression for me. And that’s what it’s proven to be. I’m finding this third phase of my career to be stimulating, demanding and engaging.

What are your short and medium-term board aspirations?

My background and skills lie in the financial services sector. It is a large part of the Australian economy and therefore an important driver of economic growth. The sector is currently facing its own governance challenges. I want to be part of the director community that addresses these challenges. My board aspirations are focussed on board directorships in this sector, where I can best serve.

outline your career background.

I’m an economist. My first 12 years were at the Reserve Bank and at the Commonwealth Treasury in Canberra. This imbued me with an understanding of the drivers of good public policy, and instilled in me a strong understanding of the objectives of government and regulators. Along the way, I spent three years in Singapore, getting an economics Masters degree and tutoring masters students from nine countries in the art of statistics. Then I spent 15 years in investment banking. Nearly half of that time was in mergers and acquisitions, which gave me insight into the commercial drivers of businesses and the kinds of things that can go wrong. This is where I started seeing boards in operation at first hand, and learning practical lessons about what good governance looks like. The other eight years were in risk management at Macquarie Bank where I held leadership positions managing a range of risks that included the full gamut of non-financial risks. I joined my first board in April 2011, and became a full-time non-executive director in October 2012.

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

There are lots of challenges! For me, the three main ones are:

1. Building the portfolio. It takes time, and you build it board by board. So once you leave executive life, there can be a period of underemployment. It takes confidence that you’ve timed it right; and patience as you wait for the right opportunities to present themselves.
2. Accepting the decision-making process. There is a lot more influencing and a lot less directing involved in decision making as a board. It is very much a team sport, and can be iterative and sometimes feel slow as the board determines as a unit its response, in particular to issues that are big but not perhaps urgent. I notice some impatience with this process from people who have recently exited executive life. I don’t pretend to be an exponent of this art yet.
3. Understanding when to speak. I have a well-developed antenna for seeing emerging issues, and that provides me with a handy guide on what to look out for and what particular matters I need to get involved in. However, as a new director, I was diligent in reading my papers and getting to grips with every single issue and coming up with solutions to problems that were, in hindsight, sometimes best left to management to determine. By the time it came to the board meeting, I was so full of good ideas and too eager to talk. Learning when not to talk is something I still work on.

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

Many! We are blessed with some excellent leaders and directors in Australia, who pursue the interests of the company with diligence and judgement, and who are happy to share their expertise and advice with others. It is not fair to single some out, because that leaves out others just as meritorious. Neverthless, I’m going to.

Allan Moss for inspirational and farsighted leadership at Macquarie; John Laker for non-nonsense leadership of APRA during the GFC; Tony Burgess, the best investment banker in Australia, for his old-fashioned dedication to the client and his fortitude in accomplishing the right deal for the right reasons; Ted Evans for his humble, exhilaratingly intellectual leadership of Treasury; and Nick Minogue for his principled, strategic leadership of Risk Management at Macquarie.

Directors Dr Ken Henry for his sheer intellectual grunt and the decency with which he conducts himself; Don Challen for his self-effacing, finely-tuned judgement, diplomacy and intelligence; and Carolyn Hewson for her gracefully-executed exit from AMP 17 years ago.

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

I continue to benefit from sponsors and mentors in ways I can’t even describe, they are so many and so varied. Mentors provide a safe place to test my assumptions, float my more outrageous theories, ask dumb questions about how boards work and discuss seemingly intractable real-life governance problems. If I had one tip, it would be to try and find a mentor who is very different from oneself. Especially if, like me, you are not an archetype. It is good to know how you come across to different people, and to learn to interact with those different people with someone who will cut you some slack.

Sponsors are prepared to help with everything from commenting on your CV to picking up the phone to another chairman when there's a board role going. I owe each and every one of my directorships to sponsors who have been prepared to make a call on my behalf. A special call-out here to Carol Austin, another WOB member and a terrific supporter of women, for her pivotal role in getting me my first ever paying board position.

What’s the diversity like on your boards?

The gender diversity is good. Diversity of mind is trickier - how to get the right balance between support of management and challenge to management is the new diversity question, in my opinion. Too much collaboration means the board just ushers things through; too much challenge and the boardroom stops being a constructive exchange of ideas. Experience shows that so much depends on the chair to make sure all opinions are outed around the board table, and the necessary time is accorded to proper, respectful discussion.

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

WOB knows what the problem is and is putting its money where its mouth is in trying to fix it. WOB behaves as though they’ve got skin in the game, which is marvellous for those of us who do. This is an encouragement to all aspiring female directors. WOB also helps in more direct ways - two of my current board roles were advertised through WOB, and Ruth Medd has been personally very encouraging to me.

Any tips for women starting out in their career?

Expect to put the same commitment into a non-executive role as you did as a busy executive. The days of a part-time, semi-retired director should be over, in my opinion. It’s a serious role, and it needs to be taken seriously.

Use your network to tell you when you’re board ready. They will know.

When you’re a brand new director on a board, say very little. Listen and learn.

Interview published: June 2018