Lessons from the boardroom with Lisa Carlin

 

Lisa Carlin started her career at McKinsey and now runs her own global advisory business, part of the FutureBuilders Group. Her portfolio of work includes advisory boards, and she mentors several Founder/CEOs in the HRTech, EdTech and workplace talent sector. She is an Advisory Board Member for Rebelliuz and a Non Executive Director for the University of Cape Town Australia Trust.


 

Your professional focus is on accelerating growth, transformation and scale ups through behavioural expertise and you recently wrote about why organisations need a nimble, agile approach to stay relevant in our fast changing post-COVID world. Can you tell me about this?

I’ve had my own management consulting business for 22 years, and for the last 8 years have been part of the FutureBuilders Group, a network of Organisational Development consultants.  I have designed and led transformation programs for probably over 50 clients over this time. We have a very participative approach. This involves all the employees so people get excited about change, rather than dreading it, and they feel part of it rather than having something done to them.

So how do you go about dealing with fear and resistance in an organisation?

This lack of psychological safety and fear in the workplace is incredibly common. In one particular case there were a number of burly, strong men in factories and distribution centres doing very heavy blue collar work. Despite the physical presence of these men there was quite a lot of emotional fragility. If they made a mistake they were often criticised in front of everybody which made them feel demeaned in front of their peers. So we set about changing a range of practices so that managers and colleagues in the team instead of pulling people down, they'd actually be focusing on the positives and taking personal responsibility for mistakes that are made, rather than blaming others. The excitement in these blokes after the changes was so incredibly heartwarming. They felt more valuable, I remember one said to me “I feel like the team has my back”. And of course productivity went up a lot.  
 

What was your first Board role?

I was the Chair of our family-owned business which made industrial adhesives. I Chaired it from here, but it was based in South Africa. I fell into that role after my family emigrated to Australia and decided to sell the business. But when we started the negotiation, I realized there wasn't anything to sell because the financials were in such a bad state and we uncovered fraud. We had to put together a proper board, we had to hire a professional Managing Director and put in place financial controls and restore the profitability. So we did all that – all Chaired from here. It took 5 years and was a relief when the transaction was over. A lot of late nights.       
 

And then came your NED role with the University of Cape Town Australia Trust? What led you to that Board?

I think if you’re going to work on a NFP board, it helps to have a passion for the cause.  I come from South Africa and always feel so privileged to live in Australia - we have so much here. This Board role gives me an opportunity to give back something to the people there, where so many of them have so little. There is such a huge gap in the education system between the high school education of disadvantaged students and people going to university. We’re trying to put in place a mentoring program for these students. Also the University’s student health and well-being organization has mobile clinics which go out to these shantytowns at 5pm when people start coming home from work. These are run by the medical students, who get experience, and the cost of running them is negligible. And for all these people that work really hard but don't have access to medicine and basic health care, they can get basic care, and paediatric clinics for mothers and babies.  These are grassroots causes and I feel deeply connected to them.

That must feel really good when you can see that what you're doing is having a real effect. Is this one of the reasons you do the job?

Yes. And now we're trying to reach an even wider audience in Australia where there are around 200,000 ex-South Africans and over 6000 alumni. We’ve just appointed six new directors as part of the nominations committee which we advertised on Women on Boards and through LinkedIn. We had a really high-quality candidate pool, so we appointed more people than what we anticipated. All the applicants were from southern Africa. We found that because there's it's not a reimbursed role, Directors tended to have some kind of affinity to Africa to be interested in applying.
 

You recently joined the Board of Rebelliuz. What was it that made you think ‘this is for me’?

Because my strength is in behaviour and I’ve worked in software development, I wanted to focus more on the HR Tech sector and look at how digital technology can help empower people in the workplace. Rebelliuz is a very exciting start-up because they want to disrupt the way that recruitment is done to make it faster for business to hire candidates, and provide an innovative jobs board to professionals looking for work. It has been launched in India and is about to be launched in Australia, and also a very high-quality advisory board with people from diverse backgrounds and it gives me an opportunity to work with the founder and CEO, so that’s terrific.
 

How has COVID affected your career and board journey?

It has led to a lot of people rethinking their purpose in life and in the workplace. I'm one of those people, and this is actually what led me to working on Boards because I had this pause in activity when COVID started and my work just jumped off a cliff.  But even before that, for a while I'd been feeling like I've reached a plateau in my work: I knew what I did, and I did it well, but I felt like I could contribute more. And I felt like I needed more. The pause gave me time to think about what I really wanted to do.
 

Did you use lockdown to do more training and courses?

Yes, I did the Clear to Lead program with LeadWellGlobal - which played an instrumental role in getting personal clarity. Then the AICD course gave me the technical knowledge and the confidence to know that I’d covered all different aspects of governance. And I did WOB’s practical courses which helped with the nuts and bolts of being a Board member as well as the CV course and WOBChats which helped connect me with people.  A passion of mine is running Exploration Workshops, which are great learning experiences for everyone, and an opportunity to build connections.  I invite business leaders and other consultants to explore techniques and digital tools to develop and engage the workforce, collaborate in the hybrid workplace, building skills for the future, attract talent, that sort of thing. Everyone learns, gets new connections and insights. I think participation in these sorts of opportunities are great learning experiences.

Have you been mentored in your board journey?

I have been fortunate to have many, many mentors informally over my career, and I think you do that naturally when you're a person who works freelance like me, because that's how I learn and grow. And I can honestly say, people have been amazing to me. They have been incredibly generous with their time and advice, and  I always try to be very specific about what advice I’m looking for to use their time efficiently.

What advice would you give to others starting out on their board journey?

  • I often talk about the hashtag #fullstackprofessional. If you think of a T-shaped model of skills, we all have a depth of skill at the bottom half of the T in one particular area, and then there's a breadth of skills that sits across the top of T. Having a breadth of skills is very useful for board work, so you can contribute in a variety of different ways. However when we market ourselves as a board member, it’s very hard to distinguish yourself when all you do is talk about your general strategic skills, business acumen and interpersonal skills etc. Whereas if you've got something in the bottom half the T shape, which is a specific specialization and depth (for me, that is behavior and transformation) this is what you should mainly talk about. The bottom half of T, our areas of specialization is actually what sells us in, although ironically, the breadth is really important. And that’s what being a #fullstackprofessional is all about.
  • The second thing is just having a real clarity of purpose. It has really energized me, and I think there are a lot of people out there that just need that energy boost. Make sure you are really clear on your own purpose, and how you want to add value.

I’m an avid gardener - you’ll always find me on weekends with dirt in my fingernails - and I came up with a personal statement around what is important to me which has a strong gardening metaphor; growth. Growth of businesses, growth of other people, growth of myself and the growth of connections between people.