Hive of activity: IT specialist Sharon Dickson on bringing bees to the boardroom

September 2021

IT specialist Sharon Dickson is an award-winning diversity champion, transformation CIO, and beekeeper. Drawing inspiration from the collective decision-making of bees, Sharon has honed her board skills as Chair and NED on The Alliance for Gambling Reform, and previously Chair and Co-Chair of QBE Pride Committee. Here she talks about the collective brilliance of bees, changing the conversation about gambling addiction, and being an LGBTI+ role model. 

Can you outline your board experience?

I am currently Chair and NED on The Alliance for Gambling Reform. Previous board experience includes Australian Computer Society NSW Branch Executive Committee member and Honorary Secretary; Nominations Committee Chair, Project Management Institute Sydney Chapter.

You are also a beekeeper. Are there lessons we could learn from bees in the corporate world?

That's precisely why I got very interested in beekeeping because bees, along with ants, use a type of networking called stigmergic networking [self-organisation through direct or indirect communication among individuals]. That’s how they communicate (collaborate) with each other and somehow don't seem to lose information in translation. They play different roles in the hive through their lifecycle, they navigate and share information all the way through the whole community. There seems to be intelligence that fits with the whole hive, not just with one individual and they work together for the collective. I find that fascinating. I do spend a lot of time watching the bees and seeing how they operate.

If only all businesses and boards could collaborate in the way bees can, things would run smoothly! 

That's why I'm on boards now, so I can choose some of this way of working. The board members are the people who set the direction and navigate the organisation through the big wide world. The Alliance for Gambling Reform works with a collection aligned organisations to make a change in the social environment. That’s where the bees come in - as Chair I'm involved in connecting the dots and transforming the organisation now and in the future

How, and why, did you get involved with the Alliance for Gambling Reform?

Like bees it’s about looking for all of those things that lead you towards your goal - making a beeline for it. I had just completed my AICD Company Directors course and after being involved in a couple of board committees years ago I had some capacity and headspace, and was looking at the lists Women on Boards sent out, and I saw this role advertised. I know  a few people in my wider community, and people I have worked with, have been impacted by gambling so this particular role was one that resonated and I felt compelled to make a difference. 

What does the Alliance for Gambling Reform do?

The Alliance for Gambling Reform is building a network of individuals and organisations with a shared concern about the impacts of gambling and its normalisation in Australian culture. Gambling is very much a stigmatized type of addiction and people impacted are often reluctant to talk about it.

But it’s a public health issue that causes so much damage to our communities. More money is spent on gambling than on other addictive and dangerous activities including alcohol, tobacco and all illegal drugs. It is a major driver of household debt, and family and personal dysfunction including  domestic violence.  Gambling harm comes in obvious ways (people who can’t afford to pay the rent or pay for medical services and people who go to jail) and less obvious but significant ways (relationship breakdowns, impacts on mental health). It can be immediate or it might be intergenerational.  And the Alliance for Gambling Reform is dedicated to changing this.  I guess how we approach creating this change is a bit like we were back with the tobacco industry about 10 or 15 years ago before plain packaging came in. 

We're non-partisan, have a strong moral compass, and are trying to effect change in the best way possible. It’s about trying to reframe the whole conversation away from blaming people who've got addictions to the fact that we're actually dealing with a predatory industry with some dangerous products that’s not well-regulated and the business model is flawed. There's a lot of work to do to change the narrative around this.

We've recently started targeting sports gambling ads. There are kids watching sports on the TV that know more about the odds of the game rather than the game itself. Some have never seen a major sporting event in their life without it being interrupted in some way by gambling promotion. We need to improve regulation around that normalizes the behavior and that in itself is damaging.

As an alliance of other organisations, are there challenges when it comes to making board decisions?

We operate in a national structure and as such we are looking to build the network of organisations around Australia. There are many different regulations and jurisdictions in different states and federally around gambling and there are a lot of services and organisations already providing health services to people who are harmed by gambling. 

We are trying to work at a different level where we can achieve legislative change but also let information flow to help inform our campaigns and target our activities to where we might be able to effect the most timely change. We have Tim Costello as our Chief Advocate who operates in very broad circles and recently recruited Gordon Ramsay as our new CEO. Gordon previously was the Attorney General for ACT and achieved significant reform in the Gambling. But the key thing is the team that we have – both the great staffing team and the many supporters right across Australia.  This has to be a strong collaborative effort to be effective

What do you like about working on a board?

I'm completely obsessed with learning. I’m curious and love to know how things work. I also enjoy working ON an organisation more so than IN one these days. I enjoy the strategic thinking, the discussion and debate, the challenge, and the collaboration you get at the board table. I love to read the room and see how everyone's thinking - draw people out and get the conversation happening.

Because I'm a member of the LGBTI community, I've honed my superpowers in terms of reading a room as I've spent so much time in the past trying to divert, deflect and guide conversations, I’ve learned to read people - it’s second nature to me.

Your work as Chair of the QBE Insurance Pride Committee earned industry sector recognition and brought about groundbreaking culture change in the sector. How did that feel?

I became Chair of QBE’s Pride Committee the year before the Marriage Equality plebiscite . As I had an executive role and trying to manage the workload, I created a Co-chair role to provide opportunity and balance

This exposure across the organisation was part of a change journey for me personally as well. I didn't feel I had to fit in the corporate stereotype anymore. I was enough. I am very capable, And I decided to make a few changes, personally. I look very different now, from what I did then.

For me, I felt that speaking out as 100% me for the first time in my professional career was really important. People around me knew, but I wasn’t really ‘out there’ front and center, leading people in that space. As I spoke on behalf of a whole lot of people, I empowered them to feel stronger and gain confidence and speak out, which, in turn, gave me that confidence. 

Through this I realised I am brave enough and strong enough to stand up for what I believe in and do things in a collaborative way, and I do make a difference. I am the culture that people want. Sometimes its about being the first in line to step forward and it can make a difference to people and show its ok and they can step forward with you.

In my view from a culture perspective QBE went through leaps and bounds during this period.  With Pride in Diversity Awards we went from bronze to gold and then held gold past when I left the company. I’m so proud to have helped build up a group of people that was able to maintain that capability once I left. I do enjoy building organisations that can maintain itself and go forward and prosper.

What initiatives did you oversee at QBE to promote diversity and inclusion that really made a difference to the culture of the organisation?

The insurance world has always been quite the boys' club but it is changing. In terms of female leaders, it has come a long way in the last five years - QBE now has a female CEO. I’m sure the LGBTI diversity awareness has had some influence in.

I think it's a matter of not turning a blind eye to bad behavior, calling out things and saying ‘no, actually, that's not OK’. It’s not OK to treat people differently, we are all the same. And yes, you may have a different understanding of life experience and that's OK because diversity in that space and genuine respect for others is actually really helpful.

You describe yourself as a diversity champion. Why is this so important for boards and organisations?

An organisation like QBE has a massive number of customers so the more diversity they have in their organisation the more they're able to understand differences and provide amazing customer service. And they’ve gone leaps and bounds in this area. We know that organisations that have a great level of diversity are more prosperous, they're able to achieve more because they have respect for difference, and that actually feeds ideas and opportunities.

What challenges have you had in your board journey?

COVID has been incredibly difficult for the Alliance for Gambling Reform as an organisation and a charity. I joined in November 2019 and then a few months later we were in our first lockdown. We had to have everybody pivot into a whole lot of other activities as the environment around us had changed dramatically, all the pokie rooms were closed across the country which is unprecedented and for some people it was the first time they had some relief from their the immediate impact of gambling harm -, although the prevalence of online gambling really picked up.

Suddenly, we've got a lot of people working from home and it was really quite interesting but difficult.  Fundraising is always hard in the NFP sector, but with COVID it has developed even more uncertainty. Fundraising for charities has become more difficult generally and I’m sure we are not alone in wanting to recruit new board members with fundraising experience to manage the risk and uncertainty of income streams. And then the Crown Casino Royal Commissions were announced in NSW, Victoria and then Western Australia and the demand for our support increased exponentially. We have to be selective in how we can focus our efforts because we value effectiveness, not activity. We have leaned into our Risk and Audit committee during this time. 

How has Women on Boards been involved in your board journey?

I joined Women on Boards in 2012. At the time I was on the NSW Executive Committee board for the Australian Computer Society and was Nominations Committee Chair for the Project Management Institute in Sydney to run their 2013 elections. But then I decided to concentrate on my professional paid role and didn't have the capacity to do these extracurricular things, so I went quiet on the board side for a while and just really took my professional career to another few levels during that time.

After I left QBE I went back to look at what I needed to do to take my board career to another level. 

I had some help from Claire with my board resume, because I found that was quite challenging for me. It’s really worth getting somebody else to help you with that. Then I saw the Alliance role advertised with Women on Boards and it just all came together.

I also found the Women on Boards events, networking, and short courses really helpful - there are things you can dip in and out of when you do have some capacity when you're looking to start transitioning and focusing on a board career.

What are your tips for women starting out their board career, who need help moving on to the next level in their board career?

  • Keep meeting and networking with other people. They can challenge you in a positive way and may see things you take for granted. I've met some amazing people through Women on Boards. Having feedback from other people who have experience is really helpful and Women on Boards is set up very well for that.

  • Getting involved early on in something you really care about is important. It’s often a lot of unpaid work generally in the first few years. So, you need to care about something to drive you through. Once you commit to something, I believe, you really got to say it through for that term. But the purpose will actually drive you to do a good job through some of those tougher times.

  • Do your due diligence about an organisation. Some of these not-for-profit, small organisations operate on a shoestring (it’s a bit of Swiss cheese really, compared to what I'm used to in the corporate world) so you have to be careful about what you're prepared to take on because you have legal obligations as a Director.