Sharon Howes - having a blast in the boardroom

The first woman in the world to run a lead and zinc blast furnace and refinery, Sharon Howes has had, in her own words, a “very eclectic career and some wonderful development opportunities” in mostly male-dominated industries. Starting out with a BHP Steel degree traineeship Sharon moved to aluminium smelting where she worked in community and government relations before moving to lead and zinc smelting where she went from managing the community health impacts of lead pollution to marketing slag and eventually running the refinery.

From there Sharon spent seven years as an executive at Snowy Hydro, heading HR, Safety & Environment and lead a major research effort into augmenting snowfall. From there she moved to a government-owned electricity generator and preparing it for sale and then into a variety of M&A project management roles and business turnaround roles. “I’ve undertaken a lot of challenging roles and the diverse experience I have gained makes me refer to myself as a generalist” she says. Sharon is also an experienced NED and committee chair.

What boards or committees are you currently on?

I’m on the board of The Mutual Bank, a small yet financially strong APRA regulated bank with over $1b in assets that is focused on serving customers in the Hunter Region. 

I am on the Remuneration and Nominations Committee and serve as Chair of the Risk Committee. I also served for many years on Hunted United Credit Union Board, where I was Chair of the Remuneration, HR and Nominations Committee and member of the Risk Committee, and member of the IT committee.

What  areas of expertise do you feel you bring to boards?

Given my consulting background in non-financial risk auditing and organisational culture,  I do put a ‘people and culture’ lens across many things, including risk management and reputation risk. I’m particularly strong on governance, which in APRA regulated organisations is an asset.  

I’ve been exposed to and worked with excellent risk and compliance management and committee chairs over a 15 year period and discovered a genuine interest in risk management. I also bring experience in CEO succession, organisational restructuring, project governance and strategic HR. Given the risk underpinning large IT and capital projects, I do bring project management experience and project governance capability to a board also. And I think I bring the capability to not only be enquiring and willing to question constructively, but am prepared to be courageous when uncomfortable issues arise. 

When and why did you decide to pursue boards?

I was approached about a board role in my late 30s. At that stage of my career, I had only thought about a directorship career in the long term, as I was quite busy juggling a full-time executive career and two young children. The Chair knew me and was trying to attract some ‘diversity’ on the board and, well, the rest is history.  All of the directors at the time worked full-time and the board meetings were conducted after work hours. 

I didn’t really understand the role and contribution of a NED until a ‘professional director’, that is someone focused full time on being a NED, joined the board of the Credit Union.  The board then slowly changed to become all ‘full-time’ professional non-executive directors and I noticed the step change in discussion regarding strategy and governance matters around the board table.  

What challenges and hurdles have you had to overcome in your board journey

There are several fundamental hurdles to overcome from my perspective. The first is most board roles are gained via networks and self-promotion.  By nature, I’m an introvert – so ‘selling myself’ and self-promotion has never been a natural skill – despite having had some challenging corporate C-suite executive roles, and currently being a consultant.  

In my corporate career, I found myself working in difficult roles and in regional areas, juggling parenting, a child with severe mental health issues and also the burden of being the main breadwinner. I didn’t think about networking strategically.  I suspect I fell into the trap of ‘if I work hard enough, I’ll be noticed’.  And with board roles, that’s not a path to success.

The second hurdle is I believe it is more difficult obtaining a board seat if you aren’t a senior CPA qualified accountant (preferably a CFO); a  legal partner or CEO (and qualified as an accountant or lawyer or engineer). My eclectic career saw me move from contaminated sites management to operations management to executive HR/IR/Safety roles, which then ‘defined my brand’ . The comment is often made about ‘the board needs HR capability’, yet in my experience all directors tick the ‘HR capability box’ when filling out a skills matrix, and don’t necessarily seek or appreciate strategic HR, culture change, or broad operational expertise. In more recent times, I’ve noticed a narrowing of expertise sought by boards, and specific experience around cyber security, digital transformation and ESG.

The final hurdle is, given the difficulty in removing a director there is a tendency for boards to want to appoint someone who is already a director who can demonstrate they ‘get along with the other board members’.  In one appointment the CEO contacted two CEOs from a previous board and asked them whether I would cause him ‘any grief’.  Surprisingly it was not the board directors seeking a reference from my previous colleagues or chair, but the CEO seeking comfort from previous CEOs that I ‘wouldn’t be a problem director!’ 

On a personal level – I was the breadwinner in the family.  That meant I did not have a well-remunerated partner supporting me while I forgave a corporate salary to pursue board roles. For many women, the fact that most board roles do not  compensate for the loss of their corporate salary. This can be a significant hurdle for many to overcome and it’s something any aspiring director needs to consider.

What do you like most about your board roles?

I like operating in an entirely different industry to my corporate experience.  My board role is in the financial services sector – and my previous corporate experience is energy, manufacturing and mining services.  I love the variety of issues to be considered and helping the organisation be the best it can be.

I like the intellectual challenge of applying my experience to the organisation’s strategy and thinking about the long term sustainability of the business.  And I like learning from other non-executive directors and being open to other views and perspectives. 

How has WOB helped you on your journey

Early in my journey I attended a terrific training session run by Claire which focused on getting the elevator pitch right and really understanding what you bring to a board.  I highly recommend that course for anyone starting their board journey. I do read the board vacancies regularly and think the open forum is a great initiative.

What  are the most useful skills which have helped in your board career?

On my previous Board, I led the CEO succession process on three occasions, and provided counsel to the CEO on executive performance matters and to the Chair on CEO performance matters, which are skills those with accounting and legal backgrounds may not have the opportunity to gain.  

Learning to step back from day to day and operational issues and appreciating the line in the sand between management and the board is an important learning. I have been a trusted sounding board to the CEO/MD on my boards, particularly on issues regarding executive performance and remuneration issues, and that has been useful in building mutually respected relationships. 

The other useful skills I have gained are developing a genuine interest in the industry sector, a collegiate approach and depth of experience in cultural change, which I know led my former directors/colleagues to  recommend me for the board role I now hold.

What advice do you have for others starting their board journey?

  • Treat being a NED as a career and invest in training, and participate in ongoing training to ensure your knowledge remains contemporary
  • Do your homework – not only on the organisation but the quality of the directors and Chair – and don’t be afraid of walking away if you have  concerns.
  • Don’t undervalue the role of networks and ‘paying it forward’
  • Seek advice. 
  • Appreciate building a board career takes time

Can you tell us something other people might not know about you

I was the first woman in the world to run a lead and zinc blast furnace and refinery. I learnt a great deal but also learnt that I have no aspiration to do this again.

On a personal level, I have enormous empathy for parents of children with mental health, eating disorders and addiction issues. I learnt first-hand about the inadequacies of our health system when trying to seek support for a daughter with comorbidity, around the same time I learnt how to continue to perform my job seamlessly whilst sitting in an emergency ward. I learnt I can cope with extreme personal pressure and stress.

Having ‘survived’ this nightmare 17-year experience,  which currently has a positive outcome,  I am now sharing my learnings with other parents in similar circumstances and bring a message of hope. On a brighter note, I love travel and the stimulation of new situations, different food, new people  and cultures and new learnings.