Lyndal Thorburn, Dr

Director

Lyndal has over 30 person-years’ experience on the boards and councils of 9 private companies, not-for-profits and industry associations. She has founded two companies and has been Managing Director/CEO of four organisations. She has also had 6 advisory roles for government and research agencies. As a Board member, Lyndal has held roles as committee member and chair in finance and risk, HR and strategy as well as board chair. She specialises in innovation, strategy, financing and governance, is a Fellow of the AICD. Lyndal's management and strategic skills have been recognised by the Women in Technology Awards, the Telstra Small Business Awards and the Telstra Businesswomen's Awards.

Lyndal has a 30 year management and consulting career in and for technology-based organisations and government. In the last four years her consulting assignments have focused on industry development in the Asia Pacific and she has mentored several Canberra-based start-up companies through the Griffin Accelerator. In 2018 she completed her second two year term as Chair of the Canberra Business Chamber's Innovation Taskforce. In this capacity she led exploration of emerging business challenges in cyber security, climate change, carbon emissions and open data. Lyndal has a degree in biology with additional qualifications in legal studies, financial management, accounting and economic geography.

What boards do you currently sit on?

Capital Health Network Ltd (NED + 2 committees), Viria Pty Ltd (MD), Enabled Employment Pty Ltd (NED + company secretary)

When and why did you decide to become a director?

I fell into being a director when I joined not-for-profit associations when I came to Canberra in the 1980s - I somehow always ended up on the management committee/board.  I decided I needed to take it more seriously in the 1990s when I was asked to Chair the board of my children's Primary School and was elected to the board of the then Australian Biotechnology Association (now AusBiotech Ltd).

I completed the AICD course at the end of the 1990s and found it really stimulating and interesting (particularly as I recognised the case study as an in-stress listed biotech company!).  

What are your short and medium-term board aspirations?

I am building a board portfolio as I transition out of full time consulting. In the short term I am looking for one or two more NED or Chair roles in the ACT or regional NSW.

In the medium term, I want to contribute to companies working nationally or internationally, at private company or ASX level, as a NED. I think this is best use of my broad experience in government and the private sector in Australia, and as an international advisor.

Outline your career background.

I trained as a scientist but, with no jobs available in environmental sciences or biotechnology on graduation, and no understanding of how to build networks to get one, I ended up in the public service, which is why I moved to Canberra.  This taught me a lot about how government works, and I ended up vastly increasing my knowledge and depth of understanding of things outside science.

I moved to CSIRO in 1986 where I led public relations and international engagement programs for its space science office.

I had a work injury in 1992 when my youngest child was just one year old.  By 1996 I felt the problem was permanent and I left CSIRO, while studying my PhD part time, to set up my first consulting company, to run part time.  After a steep learning curve, I found my feet and grew the company, until in 2004 I merged it with a similar company in Sydney, to form Innovation Dynamics.  At about this time I won the ACT Businesswoman of the Year Award and my original company was also a finalist in the Telstra Business Awards.

I led Innovation Dynamics nationally for 5 years, during which time we operated under and Australian Financial Services Licence to support companies going to initial public offering on the ASX, helping them raise almost $500m.  We also operated internationally and won an Emerging Exporter Award.  Eventually, however, my business partner and I decided to go our separate ways and we closed the company in 2009.

After this, I was employed as CEO at a medical devices company (having originally joined it as a NED), and then spent several years consulting to APEC in Singapore as an expert in monitoring and evaluation.

In the last couple of years, I have held interim Executive roles as Marketing Manager and CEO of not-for-profits, have chaired a task force for Canberra Business Chamber, and have now decided to seriously build the board career.

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

Originally, coming out of a science background, I also didn’t understand that not everyone looks at the facts and makes an objective decision based on these.  My on-the-job education in government helped me understand different approaches to decision-making and reasoning.  Maintaining diverse interests then helped me apply this at the board level.  I maintain lots of other interests beyond science - in music-making, art, pets, native plants.  Involvement in these organisations has led me to develop a broad capacity in understanding the views of others, managing a wide variety of stakeholders, understanding how government works, understanding different cultures, and figuring out how to convince others to do what you want (for the greater good, of course!).  All of these are skills I can apply in the board room.

I found it fairly easy to join boards when I was already involved in organisations, usually not-for-profits.  The challenge originally was dealing with board culture – working with a range of people who were dedicated to the cause of the organisation, but had few board skills (me included, at that early stage).

I threw myself into self-education, completing the AICD course in the late 1990s.  This built on a Grad Dip Legal Studies, focussing on administrative and contract law, which I had completed part time in the 1980s while still working in government.  After the AICD course I felt I was much better equipped to deal with technical issues in the board room and was on stronger ground when advocating for proper governance.

In the last 10-15 years there has been greater recognition of governance and why it is needed amongst NFPs, and these boards are now looking for people with good governance skills.  Education still remains one of my central strategies.  When we closed Innovation Dynamics, I took some time off to study again and completed a Cert IV in Accounting and then a Dip Accounting, both aimed at enhancing my skills for board roles.  I also continued to learn about other aspects of governance and boards through short courses offered by AICD and started building a better network through WOB, AICD and my involvement with Canberra Business Chamber and the Griffin Accelerator.

In the last 5 years, in relation to board career development, the challenge is simply getting in front of people at the time they have a vacancy, and also finding boards which pay their directors.  It helps that many more Board roles are now advertised, but unfortunately it also means that now the Nominations Committees regularly get more than 80 applicants for a role.  So, I have continued to work hard on my CV and how I write my cover letter, if I don't know anyone on the organisation.  I am now getting a much greater success in getting interviews, through that attention to detail, and awareness that I need to really emphasise how I have addressed issues at Board level.

I have always struggled with networking.  Improving my networking skills and being mentored through both AICD and WOB programs has been vital.  I am still working hard on building my networks and becoming confident in asking for referrals when I need them, using platforms such as LinkedIn.

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

I really look up to Catherine Livingstone, who I interviewed when doing the WOB NextGen program.  She shows great calmness under pressure, has a tremendous understanding of the strategic picture and is an advocate for science and technology in the economy.

Three others I admire are Sue MacLeman, Leanna Read and Merilyn Sleigh.  All of these women started off their careers in technical areas, and have risen to lead significant companies, including those listed on the ASX, and to play pivotal roles advising government.

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

I had a great mentor when I joined CSIRO in the mid-1980s – she made sure I had opportunities to learn and to stretch my capacity.  She sent me on my first international working trip, which stood me in good stead when I was offered the chance to represent Australia at a UN meeting in 1988.  I also learned a lot from her about managing organisational politics!

I have had formal mentors through AICD (David Trebeck) and WOB (Melinda Snowden). Both have been willing to put in time to helping me on my way, and I am very grateful to both of them!

What is the diversity (gender & other) like on your boards? If you sit on a mix of diverse and non-diverse boards, what differences have you noticed?

My current boards, where I sit as a NED, are very conscious of gender diversity.

Enabled Employment came out of the Griffin Accelerator and is also pushing for greater employment of people with disabilities, so that is also top of mind.  We have two women and two men on the board, and two of us also have a disability.  I am a mentor with Griffin, and we strive to ensure both gender balance and ethnic diversity in the companies we select for inclusion in the Griffin program.

Capital Health Network, my other NED role, is also very conscious of the need for gender and ethnic diversity given our focus on delivering primary health services to those who are not well served by traditional healthcare systems.  We have 5 women and 3 men on our board.  Gender balance is a significant component of our considerations as we select new board members under a rather complex constitution.

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

I have been a member of WOB for a long time!

I was chosen for the WOB NextGen program in 2012.  While I already had quite a lot of Board experience by then, I found the program very stimulating and really helped me focus on delineating the difference between an executive and a board perspective when reflecting on my experience in my CV.

In 2018, I was also a member of the WOB ASX Elizabeth Bryan syndicate.  Again, this helped me really focus on what I was aiming for, and to understand, in this case, the difference between the boards of private companies and ASX-listed entities.  We also spent a lot of time learning how to engage with recruiters effectively, quite an art.

I also really value the WOB Board appointments advertisements, as these are a central source of info on who is searching for board members.

Finally, Ruth Medd has also been wonderfully helpful in providing comments on my CV from time to time and providing very specific feedback.

Any tips for women starting out in their career?

  1. Start close to home, get experience on the boards of organisations in which you are already involved through your hobbies - great to understand the board issues, and how they can be tackled (positively and negatively).  As part of this, put a lot of time into understanding the perspectives of other board members.
  2. Make sure you have a good, rounded understanding of the views of all classes of stakeholders in member-based organisations
  3. Do as much training as you can afford, and keep abreast of trends through reading
  4. Make sure you attend local networking events for Board directors and aspiring directors.

Any other comments or insights?

I haven’t had a stock standard career, due mainly to my work injury.  But if I hadn’t left CSIRO and moved to the private sector I would have missed all that experience.  In the end, working as a consultant has helped enormously in building my board skills – it has exposed me to different practices in many sectors, and has forced me to get into and understand an issue really quickly, while being alert to internal issues that may be influencing a decision. 

Joining the boards of not-for-profits has also helped hone my sensitivities to the needs of stakeholders and has developed my antennae for human issues – something which is front of mind at the moment in the private sector, due to the Hayne Royal Commission.

I always take an opportunity when it is offered – right from the start of my working career when I got a fork lift driving licence while working in accounts payable at a bond store.  You never know when that experience is going to come in handy!