Blending Head and Heart: Michele Adair’s 7 Lessons

June 2021

It’s no coincidence that Michele Adair is the CEO of one of NSW’s largest community housing providers, Housing Trust, Chair of the peak body for community housing in the state, Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA) NSW, and a member of the Illawarra Property Council Committee. Her resolute passion to make a mark, which can be traced back to her own brush with homelessness, been critical to the work she has done in both her executive and board careers, where she has led for-purpose organisations such as Mission Australia, The Smith Family and Cystic Fibrosis NSW.
Tell me about you Michele
I grew up in Sydney. At the age of 46, my dad sadly died, so I was raised by my single mum. An intendent international exchange student in my final year of school, I wanted to work when I finished. The tourism and airline industry attracted me and I was afforded some fabulous opportunities working at the cutting edge, pioneering change.

I then studied part-time for an Advanced Marketing Certificate at Tafe, which is when I realised that marketing, stakeholder engagement and communication was the way I saw the world. This led me to a job with Freedom Healthcare, which I was forced to leave a few weeks after my son was born because there was no parental leave at the time.

I started teaching at Tafe a couple of nights a week, which led to managing my own management consulting practice for nearly 20 years in strategy, planning and organisational performance where I worked with blue chip companies like KPMG, UBS Investment Bank and Case Corporation, for-purpose organisations like the Sydney Theatre Company, Greenpeace and Musica Viva, and government agencies including the Australian and New Zealand Department of Defence and the NSW Department of State and Regional Development.

When my kids were older, I decided to go in-house as the National Manager for Community Services at Mission Australia, which launched my senior executive and board careers.

Your passion for affordable and accessible housing runs deep. Can you share why?
Maslow was right — a safe and affordable home is the foundation for every other part of our lives. You can’t get and keep a job, educate your kids, manage your health or move on from domestic violence unless you have a safe, affordable roof over your head.

I became a single mother through divorce. When my husband abruptly left my two young children and I, his secret debts were revealed and creditors reclaimed our family home and business. I lost absolutely everything. For months I struggled to find work and we lived off the single parent payment, which only left $2 after our Sydney rent was paid. Our friends and family provided us with food.

Being a single parent fluctuated from being horrendously difficult, scary and bewildering. In pragmatic terms, I had no choice. Unlike many though, I was very privileged in my poverty because I had a wonderful supportive mum and friends, the foundation of a fantastic education, and a family background and personal traits of resilience and assurance. I do believe strongly that we make our own luck, but unlike many, I had a compassionate network to help me.

To read more on Michele’s personal story, visit this article on The Sydney Morning Herald.

How does your work blend head and heart?
I love finding opportunities, attaching value, and seeing links, associations and possibilities that are less visible or not seen by others. I think it’s what sets me apart. My professional passions have always blended head and heart. I thoroughly enjoy working with the complexities of large and small property development, managing the layers of government, as well as addressing human rights and social justice obligations.

I provide head-based strategic planning, financial management and risk mitigation to heart-centred organisations.
As well as the reverse….representing stakeholder expectations to businesses.

What led you to the world of boards?
Through my senior executive career, I started to put papers to the CEOs and then as a CEO myself, to this nebulous thing called “the board” and came to understand what they did, how they did it and why. It became a great interest as well as a great frustration of mine. I really saw the opportunity that being a non-executive provides by adding value to your members and stakeholders.

What boards and committees do you currently sit on?

  • Chair — Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA) NSW
  • Member — Illawarra Property Council Committee
What boards have you previously served on?
  • NED and Deputy Chair — Liveable Housing Australia
  • Member of Services Committee — Local Government Super
  • NED and Chair of Audit and Finance — Learning Links
  • Board Chair and Chair of Governance and Planning Committee — Golf NSW
  • NED and Chair of Service Innovation and Quality Committee — Community Solutions Group

Why do you consider yourself a generalist?
My strength lies in strategy, seeing opportunity and enabling growth from a holistic risk framework. I’m a generalist. You often see or hear of boards looking to recruit a particular skill, but I find it disappointing and frustrating when it’s narrowly focused.

Everyone on a board needs a high level of financial literacy, but it doesn’t mean you have to be an accountant.

I’m an A grade generalist. I shape the implementation of strategy and the understanding of risk from a financial and human resources perspective, as well as through brand management and the technical cyber environment.

Have you had a mentor?
I have a wonderfully rich and diverse professional network and have been privileged to have people that I can be completely honest, trusting, open and transparent with. But, I haven’t had a mentor in the professional sense. That’s not to say that I won’t in the future. I am as generous as I possibly can be with my time, as a woman and a professional with a slightly different career background, because I feel I have an obligation to share insight with others. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by many others who feel the same.

How has WOB helped you on your board journey?
I’ve been a member for 10 years now. I’m probably one of the longer serving members. I’ve had a number of board roles as a direct consequence of the WOB directory and continue to find that of immense value. Through events, seminars and articles, I’ve been made aware of people with fantastic expertise and have enjoyed many networking events. WOB is certainly an organisation that has served corporations, for-purpose and government organisations, as well as women in Australia and internationally too, wonderfully well. We should all be very proud of and grateful to WOB.

What have been the biggest lessons in pursuing boards?

  1. Do not take a board because you’re desperate — you have to have a genuine interest.
  2. Do your due diligence — speak one-on-one with the CEO or CFO. Find out who is responsible for people and culture, and operations.
  3. Dig deeper — how is it positioned, what is its strategy, look at past reports.
  4. Meet your prospective board colleagues — ask why they are interested in you?
  5. Attend a board meeting in advance of joining — see the board dynamics firsthand (obviously sign a confidentiality agreement).
  6. Ask a question to find management ‘in’ not to find management ‘out’ — ask from a paradigm that assumes they have thought of the options, not from a platform that assumes they haven’t.
  7. Listen to your gut –meet with staff, be seen, have casual conversations, understand the fabric of the organisation.
What’s next for you?

I have capacity for one more non-executive role. My current board and committee are closely wrapped up in my day job. I’m actively looking for a commercial board and am looking to transit to a portfolio career in the next 4-5 years.