Lessons from the Boardroom – Dr Karen Bennetts

October 2020

"Go along the path, through the gate towards the horizon, rest every now and then, but keep going, as far as you can ..."

These are the words that accompany ‘How to get there’, the well-known artwork of Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig and aptly describe the journey of Dr Karen Bennetts. Karen says, “Each person’s circumstances are unique, but Leunig’s glorious cartoon summarises the approach I have taken in both my career and board journey.”

With 17 years’ experience in corporate governance and certification from the Australian Institute of Company Directors under her belt, Karen brings a suite of expert knowledge, skill and experience from her time working in government, for large multi-national and small and medium-sized businesses, as well as 18 years in the education industry where she specialised in the Montessori approach.

Her motivation for pursuing opportunities on boards though evolved somewhat serendipitously she explains. “Boards found me rather than the other way around. In the beginning, I never made a conscious decision to pursue boards. However, once I did fall into governance and developed a stronger financial and legal literacy, I found board work was a wonderful fit for my personality, interests and circumstances.”

Karen describes herself as .....

Karen describes herself as a systems thinker, a by-product of her degree in Geography, a curious observer who keenly seeks out the detail and a mindful decision-maker.

“In my board work, I always seem quick to analyse the connections between the parts and the whole … I love a quiet, unobtrusive walk-around and then I’ll often bring a little detail I’ve noticed to the boardroom as evidence of success or as an early warning signal … I can synthesise a lot of information quickly and also promote slower, more careful decision-making when that’s possible.”

Through her Montessori training, Karen has been strongly orientated to the intricacies of human development, which has supported her ability to give attention to the psychological and cultural aspects of boards — both key priority areas in her opinion.

How the journey began

Her journey began initially when she was in her 20s and was invited to join a Committee of Management for a craft guild. “Much later I became the Executive Director of a small independent school, a position I held for about ten years.” During this time, Karen was also on the board of a higher education provider for three years and has since served on other committees at both national and international levels. She currently sits on the board of Plenty Valley International Montessori School and chairs the Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee. She also serves on the board of Mansfield District Hospital, a public hospital that incorporates an aged care facility, and is a member of the Global Research Group, an advisory committee within the Association Montessori International, which is based in Amsterdam. “At the moment, I am in discussion with the board of a national not-for-profit and hope to take up a director role there soon,” shares Karen.

Hurdles

From a family of strong and capable women, Karen remarks: “Supporting the journeys of other women enriches my own board work … I’ve had personal experience of situations where there have been obstacles for women. I’m very grateful for a conversation I had with Ruth Medd a while ago that inspired me to take on some bigger work.” In total transparency, Karen shares that obstacles and hurdles are part of the job description, but it’s your attitude that can turn a challenge into an opportunity for personal and collective growth. “Courage, persistence and a developmental mindset allow most challenges to be relieved, if not conquered … A personal hurdle I have overcome through serving on boards has been complementing my natural reticence with a strong assertive voice. I’m confident in the boardroom these days, but it didn’t start out that way.” 

Teamwork is key to addressing complex situations

Karen adds “I enjoy working as part of a team to address very complex and challenging situations, particularly if the work helps others less fortunate or resolves a protracted environmental problem.”
 
In conjunction to the various board and committee positions Karen currently serves, she also holds a PhD in leadership and has recently become involved in the training of organisational administrators. In 2016, Karen was awarded a State Fellowship Award from the Australian Council of Educational Leaders for her contribution to the education sector.

While she has never had a formal board mentor or sponsor, Karen is quick to say she has had many people help her refine her governance skills along the way. “I learn something new from everyone I meet, and I draw lots of inspiration from children and young people. Having good family support and a lot of self-discipline has enabled me to capitalise on opportunities that come my way.”

Karen's key advice

Her key advice to other women looking to start their own board journeys — no matter their age and areas of expertise — is to take no shortcuts, because there are no shortcuts to building experience. “Check you know yourself, what motivates you and what presses your buttons because your emotions can become useful fuel.”
 
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