‘There’s no textbook’: Susan Forrester on mentoring, disruptive industries and tech-talk
Lottery chair Susan Forrester has a lot of balls in the air. Serving on a range of corporate boards across a variety of industries since 2006, Susan is an accomplished business leader, Board Chair and Company Director with a portfolio spanning the the finance, telco and technology (SAAS) sectors. With strengths in strategy and governance within industries undergoing rapid change, Susan also has 30 years of broad commercial experience as a commercial lawyer, HR Director and CEO in professional services and the finance sector.
In 2019, Susan was awarded a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for significant service to business through governance and strategic roles, and as an advocate for women.
What boards are you currently on?
Chair and NED of ASX-listed Jumbo Interactive which operates ozlotteries - one of Australia's largest e-commerce retailer retailing Australian lotteries, such as Saturday Lotto, Oz Lotto and Powerball.
NED with ASX-listed technology-led consumer lending and investment business Plenti and also multi-disciplinary engineering firm Wallbridge Gilbert Aztec (WGA). NED with listed IT and telecommunications provider Over the Wire.
And a councillor on the Queensland Division of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and Advisory Board Member with the New York-based Diligent Institute - a think tank dedicated to filling a void for board directors around a global perspective on governance.
How do you juggle all your board responsibilities?
It's very much like consulting. I've got five boards and I consult to five companies, and the role I have just happens to be the chair or NED. And just like a consultant the work ebbs and flows. Sometimes there's not much going on and other times it’s crazily busy.
As a professional company director, the month gets mapped out quite well for you. Most companies want to have their board meetings in the last week of the month, which can be quite intense. Therefore you spend the week before that reading your papers.
The last two weeks of the month are pretty frenetic, attending meetings and the first two weeks are actually quiet. That’s when I use it for my reading and networking, and also my coaching and mentoring.
What areas of expertise do you feel you bring to these boards?
When I first jumped from being a CEO and going on to boards, I relied very much on my executive skills; legal, governance, change management and strategic HR. Now I've been on boards almost 15 years full-time, the skills I bring are much more about what I've learnt in the last 15 years.
Legal training is always a great foundation, but certainly now my expertise is working with entrepreneurs and founders in fast growing disruptive industries and they always seem to be in tech.
Do you need to be a ‘tech head’ to work in the tech field?
I didn't start out wanting to do that, but it's where I've ended up. I found that once I got one tech position, it snowballed. If you're going on to a tech board you don't havedon't have to be a tech expert. There's usually enough tech people around the table and you learn very quickly on the job. But I take the time to learn the sector and get up to speed, and understand the jargon. It’s about understanding the technology platform and understanding the risks.
When did you decide to pursue a board career?
I have always had a vision that I would go onto boards, but the tipping point came when I was juggling a full-time executive job, three boards and a four-year-old son. I thought, “something’s got to give”. It was also a financial tipping point as I knew I only needed one more paying board and I would replace my executive salary.
Do you think a board career offers women flexibility?
I made the switch as I wanted more balance. It didn’t mean I would have less work, just more flexibility around WHEN and HOW I worked.
Saying that, I do get frustrated when I hear aspiring directors say ‘I really want to be a board director, I want that flexibility’. It’s NOT a part-time job. It is if you’ve got one board, and that’s all you do. But if you're trying to replace an executive salary with a board income you’ve got to have five or six roles to be able to do that. And that takes high levels of organisation, discipline and commitment to your stakeholders.
Also there’s NO flexibility happening when you are involved in a Scheme of Arrangement, responding to a takeover, working through M&A or have a CEO who's not performing. And if you serve on international boards you're either meeting early in the morning or late at night. Add that all up and the hours can be more like 50 in some weeks!
You have been mentored, and are now a mentor. Why is mentoring so important?
I had some fantastic male and female mentors when I was General Counsel and also on boards so I knew that that's where I was heading. When my first board role came up I felt it was probably a little bit early, but I got the opportunity to do it and jumped.
The thing is there's no textbook. There are great articles you can read on the Women on Board website but there's certainly no book that says: this is the way you go about building your portfolio. It’s not a linear process and you have to be patient.
There were so many tips and tricks there to be shared with people and it’s also a very big move, going from being an executive to going onto boards and having a sounding board and someone who you can check in with is very useful.
As a result of having some fantastic mentors when I was in my early 30s, I thought it was really important to give back. I enjoy it.
Have you encountered any hurdles or difficulties in your board journey?
I was recruited for an IPO and after 18 months I wanted a divorce due to irreconcilable differences. It was very much their attitude to governance and informed decision making, and really running it as a private company.
What I learned from that was I should have asked a lot more tough questions as part of my due diligence. I probably should have made the call earlier that it wasn't going to work, but I thought, once I got on, I might have been able to have some positive influence. Change is hard to effect when you are the only female advocating it.
I’m very focussed on getting the level of governance right for your company. You don't need to have BHP's gold plated governance practices for a small listed company that can't afford a company secretary. But, you need to have an appropriate level so the Directors can do their job well.
What do you love most about being on boards?
I love the diversity. I'm on a digital lotteries, a fintech, an engineering firm, a telecommunications company. It’s like being a consultant, you get a really broad sectoral experience. You get to work with really smart people, which I love, and they challenge you. There’s an intellectual stimulation that comes with it and it feeds my natural curiosity.
Are there any areas that you haven't gone into that you'd like to?
It's really strange but about four years ago, if you had asked me, I would have said I'd like to go into banking and retail like David Jones. But I think the world has changed so much in the last four years with Royal Commissions and tarnished reputations. Now I just think how much influence could I really have? They’re big ships, they take a long time to turn around. I'm having more fun and getting lots done, in mid cap land.
You are involved with industries undergoing rapid change. What are the challenges this throws up?
The challenge is to be able to strategically pivot. And that takes a lot of courage and money. If they're in a changing environment they're trying to scale up, because they're growing, and trying to invest in the right HR, financial and marketing systems. Often companies don't want to spend money on that ‘back office' systems, But, my learning is if you're going to scale up, you need to spend money on that stuff. If you don’t and you grow, it’s not fun retrofitting HR or finance systems.
What’s your advice to women starting on their board journey?
Put time into developing a network of either executives, or directors, who will be able to support you, but in time, you can support them as well.
Also join an organisation such as Women on Boards to make sure that you can get that ongoing professional development support.
Tell us something people may not know about you
There’s this myth that professional, female directors who are really busy are hopeless in the kitchen! I adore cooking and I really like making chutneys. That's what I do when I'm feeling like I need a bit of space away from board matters, I buy a few kilos tomatoes and make an Indian chutney. Then I have a supply to gift to friends (and eat with home-made naan bread!). It’s relaxing and produces something good.
Interested in having a mentor?
Find out more about WOB's mentoring program HERE