Learning the difference between governance and management with Julia Bowen

@ November 2020

Julia Bowen is the first to admit that she is not your typical candidate for a board. English born from Dorset in West County; Julia doesn’t put it down to modesty — just puts it down to plain honesty. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a chartered accountant and I don’t have a background as a CEO for a large company like most board members do… What I am though is a generalist.”

Julia is an information and technology senior expert who has spent her career implementing strategic programs and organisational change, but it is her versatile and lived experience, Julia explains, that makes her a competent and effective board member. “I’ve been a trainer actuary, a scientist, an army officer, a consultant, and I’ve run professional service practices… You name an industry and I’ve probably worked in it. Construction, travel, transport, defence, telecommunications, distribution, healthcare, finance, insurance… I think that’s why boards want me.”

From the start

Julia’s board career started in 2002 when she was approached by Medibank Private Ltd — Australia's largest private health insurance company which has over 4 million members and a turnover of over 4 billion dollars — to join their board as an independent Non-Executive Director. “I guess you could say I started at the top! I wasn’t particularly looking for a board career, but Medicare Private was about to embark on a very large project to replace all their core systems and they were very nervous. They had one female director and eight or nine male directors on the board. They decided they needed another woman as the existing woman was about to leave and they needed someone senior in IT and at the time, I was Director of Systems and Programmes at Optus. There was me and maybe two other women operating at that level in Australia, so I got the gig.” Julia said. “Sometimes these things just fall in your lap,” she added.

One of Julia’s core responsibilities during her six years with the elite healthcare company was to prepare the $4 billion float. “I was CIO at Cable and Wireless Optus and part of the sale to Syntel, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with ASX listed companies and their requirements, but my experience was from the executive side, not the board side.” What Julia quickly learnt was the importance of being on the ground, so to speak. “Ask questions, meet people, shadow other directors and get amongst the work. Yes, read the reports, but don’t stop there. Do more than that — really become part of the organisation,” Julia echoed.

With more than 20 years of successful consultancy and practice management experience, Julia achieves strategic change through a strong focus on customer need, balanced with a practical approach to delivery and good commercial judgement. “My specialty though is building sustainable businesses or company divisions often from a starting point that is not at all pretty,” Julia shared.

Transitioning to not-for-profit

In 2016, she decided she had spent enough time devoted to the corporate sector and made the transition to the not-for-profit sector. She started volunteering with Wayside Chapel in Potts Point, a charity and Parish Mission of the Uniting Church in Australia, which exists to assist homeless people access health, welfare, social and recreational services. Shortly after, she landed the role of Social Enterprise Manager. “I brought my commercial experience with me into the not-for-profit sector. It’s funny though. Many organisations in this sector sometimes think they want this expertise and other times, they just don’t!” Julia mused.

Julia then set-up and coordinated a small sporting association called Girls Independent Golf League GIGL in 2018 as the Chief Executive. “It was very successful and got taken up by the State body, which we were delighted about.” These opportunities led Julia to her current board positions as General Manager of Pillars of Strength and Director of Jarrah House (Women’s Alcohol and Drug Advisory Centre). “Pillars of Strength is a program for bereaved fathers who have lost a child. There is a tremendous amount of support for mothers out there, but not for the fathers. In fact, we were stepping it up to the next level when COVID hit us and now it’s in hibernation and will be for a year or so… The program is about getting blokes together through a variety of events, which sadly can’t happen at the moment.”

Julia continued: “It is especially tough for these guys who feel a double sense of responsibility for their partners who are clearly suffering and because it’s something people don’t like to talk about. It’s very hard for them to get support.”

Jarrah House, on the other hand, provides a unique residential drug and alcohol treatment service based in Little Bay and is built on the belief that women have the right to choose the ways in which they wish to make the desired changes in their lives. “They run detox and rehabilitation programs and support women with children. We have childcare there. It’s amazing,” Julia commented.

Times of crisis

Talking about times of crisis, Julia explained that it’s very important to “step up” when challenges spike. “The monthly meeting or the reports are not going to cut it. You have to put the time in to help the management solve the problems.”

“For a lot of drug and alcohol focused organisations like Jarrah House, for the staff, they are in a constant crisis mode because the people they are dealing with are in crisis. They are often violent, extremely ill, mentally unwell and sometimes the police are involved... I experienced this daily at Wayside Chapel… It’s important to understand that there are these operational or underpinning crises for organisations. The ones that we on the board deal with are the ones that affect the board, not the day-to-day events though… We hire experts to deal with the day-to-day crises,” she added. 

Governance vs management 

This has been a defining lesson for Julia over the course of her board career, one that she is more than happy to be transparent about. “Please, I don’t want to paint myself as some sort of paragon! When I was with Medicare Private, and many other projects for that matter, they went massively off the rails. I could see it coming and called it out a couple of times, but then two to three months later, that’s exactly what happened. I then stepped in to put it back on the rails, but that was a huge mistake. Why? Because that’s not my job as a board member... I let the whole IT and Projects team off the hook and then all of a sudden, it was my project. I had to really back off and we hired external consultants to review the project and provide us with helpful hints. It taught me a big lesson. I now know the difference between governance and management and how important it is not to cross the line.”

One of Julia’s former lecturers used to say: “Eyes in, fingers out.” A wise mantra that has guided Julia to this day.There is no question you can’t ask or a detailed report you can’t see, but fixing stuff is management’s responsibility, not the boards.”

Gender balance

On the topic of gender balance in the boardroom, Julia admits that times are changing, but that we also have to be realistic. “An awful lot of us have had families. Until someone extends the day beyond 24 hours, it’s just not feasible. You cannot put all the time you need into being a parent and then all your time into your job. You have to make choices. Most women I know will choose to take time out of their career for their family. I think it’s fantastic we have that choice and we also have the choice to return. That is getting easier and easier. Give it another half generation and we will see more changes,” Julia added.

 “There’s this saying: You can’t produce a baby in a month by getting nine women pregnant,” she chuckled. “What I mean is, if you want to be effective on a board, especially a senior board, it takes time. If you don’t have a lot of experience, it doesn’t matter what you do, you are not going to be effective. I’m a big fan of education, but it does take experience and that will likely mean you will be an older woman sitting on a board because you have taken ten years out to have kids. It’s sort of what it is… or you could just lie about your age!” 

WOB’s impact

WOB has had an influential impact on Julia’s career. Not necessarily by supporting the roles she has had the pleasure of pursuing, but rather the critical voice the organisation has represented. “It’s the raised awareness and the perseverance to push the barrier to get women on boards that has made the biggest difference. It’s the advocacy work and the bringing together of communities for both women and men. Without WOB, I’m certain we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

But it’s still a boy’s club, Julia divulged. “Most of my life I’ve worked with boys who call themselves men. In the military, in engineering, in finance. I’ve often been the only female in a management meeting. I have a large circle of male friends. I also play golf! WOB is doing a sensational job, but anyone who thinks they can get a job on boards without a good network of men is kidding themselves.”

“This will change,” Julia continued. “But we have to be in the game — not necessarily play it— but we have to be in the game.”

“It’s better than it was. I have had several jobs now where I am allowed to wear trousers to work!” she commented.

“When I went through the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as a junior army officer, the year before they had the final class of flower arranging. We were the first class that got to ever hold a firearm. It’s not all that long ago. As women, we would leave Sandhurst as administration officers and when men had big regimental dining-in nights, we had to check on the flower arrangements. We have made enormous strides; it’s not a joke.” 

Giving back

Next on the agenda for Julia is exploring ways to make further contributions to marginalised communities. After 35 years of living in Australia, she feels incredibly privileged to be a part of a society that has afforded her generous opportunities. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a bus inspector and on my father’s side, my grandparents were immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. We were always taught that we were incredibly fortunate. Both my parents went to university and were teachers. We went to good schools and owned our home, and it was expected that we would look after other people.”

While Julia’s military days are a time of the past, it’s no surprise that the Academy’s motto is ‘serve to lead.’

“That’s what I’ve tried to do and will continue to,” Julia concluded.

Further Information

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